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Summary:

The San Francisco Chronicle appears to have decided that putting a paywall around commodity news content isn’t a great strategy and has effectively dismantled the one around its newspaper site — although the company says it will keep a subscription plan.

Anyone who follows the newspaper industry has gotten pretty used to seeing the launch of new paywalls by now, as publishers try to fight the ongoing decline of their print advertising and circulation revenue. Tuesday saw a publisher move rather sharply in the opposite direction, however, when the San Francisco Chronicle effectively removed the wall it erected around its newspaper content just four months ago — in what appears to be a tacit admission that charging for commodity news isn’t working.

The first evidence of cracks in the paywall appeared when former Chronicle staffer Casey Newton noticed that some of the content that would normally have been behind a wall at SFChronicle.com was freely available on SFGate.com (like some other papers, including the Boston Globe, the Chronicle has been using a dual-site strategy in which some of its content appears for free at SFGate and some remains paywalled at SFChronicle.com).

The paper’s new approach of putting all its newspaper content in both places was confirmed on Twitter by one of its writers, music critic Aidin Vaziri:

Following a number of reports speculating about the end of the paper’s subscription plan, the Chronicle’s new publisher and president released a statement that seemed to suggest the company is trying to modify its paywall without giving it up altogether: while all of the paper’s news will be appearing at both the SFGate and SFChronicle sites, the two executives hinted that they will be trying to add enough value to the latter to keep people paying for it. According to the statement:

“SFGate will continue to provide readers with a broad spectrum of content as well as all Chronicle reports and columns. The SFChronicle.com site will continue to provide readers with an online version that replicates a newspaper experience and reflects the changes in the news throughout the day. We will continue to increase the unique assets that distinguish SFChronicle.com, including design features, utility and unique offerings to subscribers.”

The Chronicle’s publisher, former Los Angeles Times publisher Jeffrey Johnson, and president Joanne Bradford — a former Demand Media executive — were hired by the newspaper’s owner, Hearst Corp., in May with a mandate to revitalize the faded paper, which no doubt explains the somewhat sudden change of heart on the paywall.

What remains to be seen is whether other publishers will follow suit and decide that a strict paywall approach is not working. The Boston Globe — whose paywall has seen relatively lackluster participation since its launch — is under new ownership now after the NYT sold it to local businessman John Henry, and the Washington Post is also answering to a new master after its acquisition by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Will these new owners choose to stick with a paywall approach, or even double down on the walled garden model the way the new owners of the Orange County Register have? Or will they decide that there is more to be gained by taking advantage of the web to make their papers a kind of open platform for journalism the way the Guardian has?

Update: According to a report at Dallas-based D magazine, the Dallas Morning News is also planning to take down the paywall around its regular news site and launch a separate “premium content” site.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Voronin76

  1. French but optimist consider by Publishers as a winner making nice money on selling paid subs for English languages magazines( yes in France…) for 25 years and happy to read again as the first day working for the industry that the business will disapear and these bad news always come from American experts. I bet with you that they are wrong again as ever and the Quality Publishers respecting customers will survive. Rgds, eric le quinio

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  2. Whats a news paper?

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    1. Newspaper is used for the bottom of birdcages, cleaning windows and to cover windows when spray painting…

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    2. It’s where leftists work to shoot their own feet as they type.

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  3. Here’s the fundamental problem with a paywall. It’s puts in place a self-selecting mechanism so only those who agree with the publication’s political ideology will subscribe. As a result, pundits and reporters find themselves “preaching to the choir”. Bor-ing! Instead, the paper should offer a premium service. or levels of service. The more you pay, the more goodies you get, right up to the annual cocktail party with the staff or editors or something like that. A meet and greet. Personal emails from reporters on a daily basis. Personal news synopsis. Be creative folks.

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    1. Wow – that is a great idea!

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  4. Hmmmm, San Francisco & New York newspapers are going out of business, Check. Their ‘digital’ strategy, once a clarion call to profitability, is being abandoned. Now the strategy is no paywall. Hmmmmm, IT COULDN’T BE THE CONTENT… NAAAAHHHHH!

    And besides, when I do read a piece from the NYT, the stories are unreadable. They are like children’s books full of flowers, “would you believe,” flurries of gushing goodness, each next story is full of “…you wouldn’t believe this, but… ”

    Hmmmmm, IT COULDN’T BE THE CONTENT… NAAAAHHHHH!

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    1. Thomas Hulting Friday, August 16, 2013

      If you go to a local restaurant and get a lousy meal, do you go back? If you see a lousy movie, do you recommend it to your friends? If you go to an event and regularly get offended, do you keep going back? If you invest in a stock that tanks, do you buy more? Do you generally listen to people who only tell you half-truths or who routinely outright LIE to you?

      Could it be the CONTENT? NAAAAAAHHHH. We like to take a sharp stick in the eye!

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  5. The problem stems from the fact that people are adopting RSS feeds and getting their news from primarily select websites that utilize such technologies and rely solely upon ad revenue.

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  6. All liberal biased newspapers like the SF Chronicle and the NY Times need to go the way of the Dodo. Forward!

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  7. is “information” — the report about a legislative event, for example — is that a commodity that can be sold? or is it really, truly the public’s? the public’s to own, to read if it wants, to decide what to do with, to do anything with. but can you rightfully shut down the flow of information a society needs?

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    1. Harvey, yours is the mind of a thug. You feel you have a RIGHT to the productive efforts of your neighbors. If you feel it is wrong for a newspaper to charge for its content, then YOU publish for free “the flow of information a society needs”. No one is stopping you.

      I am no fan of the liberal MSM, but they are certainly free to charge for their content if they can get people to pay for it.

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  8. How many ‘tards actually paid to read that rag?

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  9. I think I saw a newspaper the other day. I was a really strange sight – like not being somewhere for a very long time.

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  10. Still no one will read it. MSM is dead because they are gov’t puppets. This is all about Free Speech defeating bad journalism. After all the gov’t (and their corporate cronies) censor the media and ban books like “America Deceived II”.
    Last link of “America Deceived II” before it is completely censored:

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