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The Valley Morning Star in Harlingen, Texas, which was a test-bed for Freedom Communications’ plans to potentially charge users for online access to its papers, returned to a free site last week less than a year after beginning to charge for online content. The paper is a small daily (circulation 23,000) but when it instituted its paywall in July 2009, it said it had been “selected to be the first newspaper in a Freedom Communications’ initiative to use its online edition to boost readers’ subscription values.” At the time, publisher Tyler Patton said, “The days of giving content away, which costs money to create and for which we charge our print subscribers, I think, are just over” and added that other Freedom papers would likely follow his paper’s lead.
Freedom Interactive president Doug Bennett, however, now tells us that “there are no plans to expand pay walls at this time” and describes the Morning Star paywall as a “useful test to determine whether there was an effective balance between a free, advertising-supported model and a paid-use model in one of our local markets.” He says that while some readers were wiling to pay, the test validated the company’s existing ad-supported model. “We want to grow a larger share of audience by making locally-focused information more accessible across multiple platforms, and in turn help our advertisers deliver relevant messages around our content to niche or mass audiences.”
The Valley Morning Star‘s site is now topped with a banner stating that it has returned to a “completely FREE web site” — something it says it has done “based on your feedback.” Patton tells his own paper that “providing free and unfiltered access to our web site better complements our mission going forward.” He doesn’t say how many people signed up for online subscriptions but does say that the site’s pageviews “climbed steadily after an initial decline.” The site had about 1.2 million page views before the paywall was put in place and 1 million as of last month.
Meanwhile, other local newspaper chains, including MediaNews and *A.H. Belo*, are apparently moving ahead — albeit cautiously — with their own paywall experiments. MediaNews said in February that it would start charging for online access at two of its dailies by next month and *A.H. Belo* will soon charge users to access some Providence Journal articles online.