Paywall success stories: Three newspapers using the metered model

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About a month ago we looked at traffic numbers from newspapers that put up paywalls in the last year. Despite the general assumption that charging for digital content will cause a drop in traffic, it's not always the case. How did some local news sites actually attract more pageviews after charging for content, and, more importantly, did those visitors also translate into more revenue? 

We spoke to three publishers on our list that showed increases in unique visitors to get their perspective. Interestingly, all of them use the metered model, popularized this year by The New York Times (which is so far getting good results). It's premature to proclaim that metered paywalls will save the newspaper industry ― and these publishers are realistic about the work still to be done. But each offers an interesting case study that could serve as a model for paid content. 
 

Concord Monitor

Publisher: Newspapers of New England
Website: ConcordMonitor.com
Paywall initiated: May 3
Paywall specifics: $1 for 24-hour Web subscription; $17/month for 7-day print subscription + Web access; $9.99/month for Web access only. Users can register for free to view 10 articles/month.
 
The most positive statement I heard during interviews with several newspaper publishers the last few weeks came from John Winn Miller, publisher at the Concord Monitor: "I can't say anything bad about the paywall. I think it's been the best thing, or one of the best things, we've ever done." Concord Monitor
 
Miller has some bragging rights: The paper has managed to keep traffic numbers steady and grow revenue since the paywall went up in May. Initially, the paper saw a minor year-over-year 3 percent drop in unique visitors, but visitors are now up this month, he said. (Our analysis showed a traffic increase that he attributes to technology platform changes.)
 
Miller added that some advertisers that left when the paywall launched are beginning to come back. Overall, the paper has seen year-over-year increases in online revenue and print circulation. After three months, the newspaper attracted more than 100 online paid subscribers, which projects to about $25,000 a year in extra revenue. In the long term, Miller expects the increase in circulation numbers to also drive an increase in advertising revenue.
 
The Monitor also has gained incremental subscription revenue by changing its print rates to account for digital content. The paper required subscribers to opt out of paying $0.25 more  a week ($17 a year) for unlimited Web access. Miller was pleasantly surprised when 90 percent of print subscribers did not opt out — resulting in a “tremendous boost to revenue.” Furthermore, print circulation has gone up. 
 
The Monitor chose the paywall model, fulfilled through Clickshare, after analyzing their own traffic and the experiments in other newspapers, particularly in the Northeast. They paired the new pricing structure with a complete redesign of the website, including more of a focus on breaking news and including new features like stock picks and movie listings. The newspaper decided to put only local copy behind a paywall and offer some content, such as wire stories and classifieds, for free. In the future mobile content will also be behind the paywall. 
 
While some readers were initially upset at the change, the backlash has subsided, Miller said. "It has been so successful for us that I can't believe everybody hasn't been doing something like this,” he said. 
 

The Augusta Chronicle

Publisher: Morris Communications
Website: AugustaChronicle.com
Paywall initiated: Dec. 6, 2010
Paywall specifics: $6.95/month for Web-only subscription, $2.95/month for print subscribers (in addition to the $16/month cost of a 7-day subscription); first 10 articles are free
 
The Augusta Chronicle's metered model, built on the Press+ platform, began by offering readers access to 25 articles a month and slowly dialed it back to 10. The method seemed to work, as subscriptions went up when the newspaper moved the meter to 15 articles in early July, said Alan English, executive editor of the newspaper. (He wouldn't reveal revenue numbers.) Augusta Chronicle
 
"We wanted to begin with a more liberal meter to help introduce the idea to the community, and then tighten the meter as part of the strategy to ultimately charge for premium content,” he said. 
 
The Chronicle's traffic has remained steady, though the tightened meter has caused a small drop, he said. 
 
"I believe we have walked slowly in the paid metered strategy to train our audience about what is free and what is paid without running them off,” said English. “And now as we tighten the meter we are starting to see some impact but not an alarming impact — we're still growing."  
 
As The New York Times has demonstrated, sometimes paywalls can boost ad revenues up by giving advertisers a more targeted audience. The Chronicle is hoping to increase advertising revenue this way.
 
"We have seen some interest in advertisers willing to pay specifically to have their ads served to the paying audience,” English said. “And an advertiser will have more options about how they'd like to advertise to a specific audience." 
 
Though he speaks positively about how the payment platform is working so far, English isn't ready to give the verdict on the metered model. It's a work in progress, with the Chronicle still trying to figure out where aspects like mobile fit in. 
 
"Everyone is trying to call the success or failure of paid meters or paywalls way too early,” he said. “We are still at the very beginning of developing digital paid content strategies. I would caution anyone from drawing conclusions from any results in the last six months. The digital landscape keeps changing." 
 

Tulsa World

Publisher: World Publishing Company
Website: TulsaWorld.com
Paywall initiated: April 4, 2011
Paywall specifics: $14.99/month for a yearlong Web + smartphone subscription; $15.99/month for a 6-month Web + smartphone subscription; $16.99/month for a 1-month Web + smartphone subscription; $20/month for 7-day print + Web subscription; $8.99/month for a Kindle subscription. Non-subscribers can read 10 free articles a month.
 
"If you want to be successful you have to have the content,” said Jason Collington, web editor for Tulsa World. While the newspaper's paywall was unveiled this year, it has been years in the making, beginning with efforts in the newsroom to offer more local content. Editors now update the website 80 to 90 times a day with local exclusive content, he said. Tulsa World
 
Before putting up the paywall, the newspaper looked at behavior in Omniture and had an expectation of what traffic changes would look like when they started charging for content, Collington said. Luckily, the site has exceeded those expectations, including an increase in year-over-year online advertising revenue.
 
"[Advertisers] are getting a more engaged audience, which is what they're signing up for in the first place,” Collington said. 
 
But the core of the site's paywall success remains the content.
 
"I think it doesn't matter what kind of way you want to charge your audience; you have to have the content before you can start thinking about charging,” said Collington. "Sometimes the missing part is the content and the talent producing that content. That's certainly been a focus here for some time now, and it's paying off." 
 
In a future post, I'll pull out some of the best practices I've gleaned from what's worked (and not worked) from recent newspaper paywalls.

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