Blog Post

Is the SF Chronicle the beginning of a paywall rollback trend?

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 was freely available on (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

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 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, 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

27 Responses to “Is the SF Chronicle the beginning of a paywall rollback trend?”

  1. It seems interesting that everyone is against the newspaper and paying for the content however we don’t go into Barnes and Noble and look around and say why the heck and I paying for this content? I should be getting all their thoughts and opinions for free. I agree content is what makes people want to read or share the information, but really is there difference between these potatoes and those po-tot-o’s?

  2. Ida Tarbell

    There’s nothing new coming. Major classified advertising has left daily newspapers. Advertising online, no matter how many traditional news readers gather online to read it, can’t summon the consumer response traditional newspaper advertising can. In short, there’s less money online. What about the declining newspapers themselves? They’ll bring in less revenue and some will shrink to the point they can’t survive in print. It doesn’t matter terribly what the Chronicle does online? Online newspapering is never going to be the cash cow newspapers were. We’ll still have news, but it won’t be as generally authoritative as it was when adverisers supported the medium in grand style. The Chronicle may be dumping the online effort because they know it will never be a winner, so why continue to invest in it?

  3. Paywall up, paywall down. Paywall up, paywall down. These are just more convulsions of the dying newspaper industry.

    The Internet comet crashed to earth in 1998 and killed the newspaper dinosaurs, who existed solely because they could create monopoly conditions for local advertising. The newspapers were killed by the digital revolution with the formation of craigslist, ebay, google, and amazon all around 1998, thus destroying the local advertising monopolies, but their deaths have taken over a decade to register with their pea-sized brains as their mammoth bodies thrashed about.

    Going digital ten years too late means that newspapers have merely become little more than a few additional websites competing with a billion existing web sites for limited advertising dollars. And even worse for the dying papers, ad pages no long bring in thousands of dollars per page, but instead bring in thousandths of a cent per page, so there’s no chance whatsoever of digital ad revenues ever equaling newspaper publishing ad revenues.

    Digital subscriptions, also known as paywalls, never had a chance of working either. Most of what’s behind a paywall is freely available elsewhere, and paywalls render any ads behind the paywalls valueless, meaning no one in their right mind is going to pay for an ad behind a paywall.

    It is true that the loss of news gathering by newspapers is collateral damage from the digital revolution. However, news was never anything more than the hook to get consumers to buy and read the newspaper ads, and for the most part had been turned into little more than leftest propaganda anyway, so the value of the “loss” is highly debatable.

    At any rate, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch, since most U.S. newspapers have been promoting the overthrow of all that is good and unique about the U.S. for at least 70 years. At least buggy whip makers never tried to destroy the U.S.

  4. Lame Duck

    ‘Course, the editors are always banning people from their comment section, for talking about gays or blacks. BUT CHRISTIANS AND WHITEY are FAIR GAME!!

  5. SocraticGadfly

    Short answer to Gnu Media fluffer Ingram: No, this isn’t something new about to become a trend. Longer answer: Whoever came up with the dual website idea for the Chron should have been exiled to a place even worse than Beaumont, Texas.

  6. Iam Nottadog

    I do not like the fact they expect us to pay and STILL put up with their advertising. There is a simple solution. Right click on a bookmark to the site, click “Open in Incognito Window”. NYT will give you another 10 articles a month, as many times as you like. It works on all sites.

  7. Cam Kirmser

    Ya know, if they thought about it, the idea might be to have a paid subscription service that gets you to their website content ad-free.

    So, if you don’t want to subscribe, that’s cool; the content is still free, but you have ad content, too.

  8. Michael Wells

    As an ex-San Franciscan, I can only hope this paper ends up, with all the other liberal, bias crap, where it belongs-in the dumpster. BTY, isn’t it stange how the Bay Area media has pretty blacked out the worse serial killings in C.A. The Zebra Killings. It was a nightmare Google Zebra Killings SF and see what the lib have been trying to have people forget. The Zodiac was nothing compared to this.

  9. 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?

    • 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.

  10. Gnomester

    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.

  11. 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… ”


    • Thomas Hulting

      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!

  12. Leon A Davis

    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.

  13. 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