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:
Good news: All San Francisco Chronicle content will once again be available for free on @SFGate. You can finally read my stuff.
— Aidin Vaziri (@MusicSF) August 13, 2013
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