Taking The Plunge: How Newspaper Sites That Charge Are Faring


Credit: Flickr / from a second story.

As more newspapers kick around the idea of charging for content, much of the attention has been focused on the pay models employed by the bigger players like the WSJ and the Financial Times. But quietly, some small- and medium-circulation papers are coming up with their own formulas to get readers to pony up for access to their websites. We checked in with some of these papers to find out how much they are charging and how they’re faring.

This is, by no means, a complete list. But one can draw some general conclusions by looking at the experiences of what is admittedly a very sample size. The newspapers tend to be located in smaller, often rural markets; online-only subscriptions are typically priced at a substantial discount to the print edition (in general, about 75 percent of what the print product costs); where numbers are available, the number of online subscribers is still a tiny percentage of their print counterparts (less than 5 percent); and many of these papers say they began charging not so much to make money online, but rather to protect sales of their print editions.

Newspaper: Daily Gazette
City: Schenectady, New York
Average paid circulation: 44,242
Pricing plan: Online-only subscriptions are available for $2.95 a week; while print subscribers, who pay $3.00 a week for home delivery, can pay an additional penny each week to also get unlimited access to the website as well as to an electronic edition. Blogs, AP stories, TV schedules, photo galleries, and breaking news remain free.
When pay wall was introduced: August 2009, although the paper was already charging readers to access the electronic edition
Results: Website traffic has plummeted by 40 percent in the three weeks since the Gazette started charging for most of its online content, including obituaries, managing editor Judy Patrick tells us. But she says “online subscriptions are slowly building.” There are 670 online-only subscribers.
Comment: The Gazette competes with the nearby Albany Times Union, which makes all of its content available for free, although it does charge 75 cents to access a digital copy of the paper. It’s too early to tell how the Times Union’s traffic has fared.

Newspaper: Valley Morning Star
City: Harlingen, Texas
Average paid circulation: 23,294
Pricing plan: Online-only subscriptions are available for 75 cents a day, $3.95 a month, or $39.50 for the year. Daily print subscribers get free access to web content and also to an e-edition of the paper. Weekend subscribers have to pay an additional $3.16 per month for online access, while Sunday-only subscribers have to pay $3.56 a month. Event listings, obituaries, AP stories, video, blogs, and classifieds all remain free.
When pay wall was introduced: July 2009
Results: A representative did not respond to a request for comment, but since the Morning Star started charging for online content in mid-June, another Freedom Communications daily, the Lima News, has followed suit. Traffic to the Morning Star’s website was actually slightly up in July, according to Compete.
Comment: “It will allow greater value to our many loyal print-edition subscribers by not giving away the news to non-subscribers,



Paywalls kill website traffic. Decreased website traffic is unattractive to advertisers. The paywall may seem necessary to many publications, but it seems to me to be an old world way of thinking about how media is consumed.

The key is that the internet destroyed the economics of publishing, completely and irrevocably. Whereas printing presses were once incredibly expensive to set up, the cost of publishing on the internet keeps falling asymptotically towards zero. This removes both the competitive advantage and the positive returns to scale print publishers once enjoyed. However, even if society no longer needs newspapers, we still need journalism — and in that seed still lies promise for publishers who can figure out how to come out kicking on the other side of this digital revolution.” – Clay Shirky

Recently one of our favorite publications, The Portsmouth Herald, announced they will begin charging users to access their website news content. This new fee-based update took effect on November 16. This change has been met with fierce criticism from many loyal SeacoastOnline readers. John Tabor, president of Seacoast Media Group states giving news away for free online while offering the same content in a paid physical paper is “an inherently contradictory and unstable model.” The website currently does not generate enough advertising revenue to cover the costs of maintaining the site and paying Seacoast Media Group’s 33-person news staff, he said. “The truth is that the advertising online will never pay the full cost of the newsroom, nor will a single advertising revenue stream, which is very volatile, supports a lot of local news gathering that we do,” he said.

In the ever strategic words of Seth Godin “When people talk about the problem with ‘free online’, they’re missing the point. Free is creating lots of attention, but marketers haven’t gotten smart enough to do something profitable with that attention. If someone has commented on your blog or replied to your tweet [or reads your news content], they are paying with their attention. Whilst not being a monetary transaction, that attention must be acknowledged and the relationship built on in order to convert the attention to an action – whether that be clicking through to your website or buying your product or talking about your product/service with someone else (advocacy). Audience members will not sit still for having their time wasted or disregarded. If time is money (and it is) then the audience member is paying with their attention and expects to get their money’s worth.” The following is our take on this internet marketing situation with some ideas to add value to the new paywall based model.

As John Tabor stated giving news away for free online while offering the same content in a paid physical paper is “an inherently contradictory and unstable model.” Are we again focusing on the wrong part of the equation? Instead of stating that offering news for free online is what makes charging for physical newspapers an unstable model, does it make more sense to argue that continuing to run a print publication with a 33 person news staff is an unstable model? Is benevolently pushing forward a print publication simply delaying the inevitable? Is it time to rethink the business model entirely?

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