Amid the transition in news publishing from print to the Web, or what some industry pundits more broadly refer to as the “death of newspapers,” publishers are searching for means of online revenue to supplement diminishing print advertising and subscription sales.
Last month, executives at the Gannett Company, publisher of the Ithaca Journal and more than 80 other daily newspapers, unveiled plans to launch a subscription model this year that includes “metered” charges for online access. Gannett says the plan will bolster local news and deliver $100 million more in profits. With newsrooms 30 percent smaller today than in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center, the idea is ambitious yet necessary, considering the $25 billion decline of print advertising since 2005.
Gannett is not alone in attempting to monetize the digital space. Instead, the largest newspaper publisher in the country is merely hopping on board the “metered revolution” spurred by The New York Times’ plan that launched almost one year ago, nearly 20 years after news first appeared on the Web in 1993.
A metered plan grants consumers the right to view an allotted number of articles for free before being asked for payment to continue reading. Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon has less formally referred to such an arrangement as the “crack dealer’s paywall” — give consumers access to some content for free, and they will beg for more.
The early returns on the meter are in, and it’s working. In its first four months, the Times attracted about 224,000 digital subscribers, close to its original goal of 300,000 in the first year. Despite all the fears that the Times’ website would lose page views, the tally of unique visitors actually increased 2.3 percent from September 2010 to September 2011, six months after the subscription model’s implementation. Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism lab projects the Times’ model to attract an additional $25 million in annual online subscription revenue.
The benefits are not limited to the digital space. A metered paywall can also protect the print edition, which, despite declining numbers, still accounts for 85 percent of the industry’s revenue through advertising. At the Times, Sunday print circulation grew between March and September 2011, according to data released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
Metered paywalls offer casual consumers the opportunity to browse headlines and read a limited number of articles, contributing impressions and bolstering a publication’s digital ad revenue without requiring payment. The paywalls target a distinctly loyal audience — in the Times’ case, those who read 20 or more articles a month. Luckily for the Times, their typical readership age demographic is in the low 40s, situating the publication much better moving forward than broadcast news, with its less strategic mid-60s demographic — not nearly as attractive to advertisers.
But can such a model work at newspapers across the country without the journalistic quality or resources the Times has? Data from smaller community newspapers across the country suggest so. The Concord Monitor, which covers New Hampshire’s capital city with daily print circulation around 17,000 copies, has seen a small drop-off in page views since its meter took effect in May, but also a new source of revenue and relative increases in print sales and online advertising, with a more devoted consumer base to pitch to advertisers.
Newspapers remain America’s most trusted news source, and as long as they continue to offer daily news not available elsewhere, they will survive. Whether Gannett newspapers like the Ithaca Journal, which is printed about 50 miles away in Johnson City, can provide the high-quality, quasi-daily local news that the company is striving for is another story.
Patrick Duprey is a senior journalism major pursuing an independent study project on media paywalls. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.