Free access to local daily newspapers’ websites — including The Advertiser and The Advocate — will soon be a thing of the past.
By Dominick Cross
It’s probably no coincidence that Gannett Co., owner of 80 newspapers across the country including The Daily Advertiser and the Opelousas Daily World, confirmed in February it will incorporate a paywall — or what it calls a “new content subscription model” — for access to its online content.
Gannett’s announcement comes on the heels of word that The New York Times reported 390,000 digital subscribers, up 20 percent from the total it had when the third quarter came to an end last year — less than a year after NYT launched its paywall.
Whether you call it a paywall or a new content subscription model, free and unencumbered access to stories the local papers have online will cease company wide sometime before the end of 2012. However, a metered model that allows viewers to read between five and 15 stories per month without charge will be part of the new plan.
Currently, The Advertiser’s seven-days-a-week print subscription is $13.30 a month; the e-edition for the same time frame is $14.95 a month. According to Adweek, acknowledging an expected negative impact on home delivery volume, Gannett says it will increase affected newspapers’ single-copy prices by 30 to 100 percent.
The paywall plan is especially noteworthy because it arrives as newspapers everywhere look for new revenue streams amid sinking advertising sales and a decrease in print readership. Gannett says each property will come up with its own plan, from the straight paywall to the metered approach.
Although Gannett’s CEO Gracia Martore did not say when the paywall will be in place, an increase in the print subscription rate is anticipated. The company’s flagship, USA Today, is not expected to take part in the paywall plan anytime soon.
Still, when its 80 community papers get on board, Gannett projects its new paid content initiative will contribute to a 25 percent increase in annual subscription revenues company wide.
And that means, according to Martore in a press release from the Investors Day meeting Feb. 22, the move is expected to make Gannett $100 million more in subscription revenue per year once in place across the board.
Departing Advertiser Executive Editor Brian Tolley relayed a response to The Independent’s inquiry about the paywall on behalf of Ali Zoibi, president and publisher of the Advertiser.
“I’ll be honest with you: We’re going to [go to a paywall], We just don’t have a day yet.”
— David Manship, Advocate publisher
“We have no more information to pass along at this time than what appeared in our story. We don’t even have a timeline at this point,” Tolley’s email reads. “It would be more appropriate to speak to the matter when Lafayette plans are finalized and we have new details to share.”
Gannett says the new content subscription model offers options to consumers and advertisers. Subscriptions will include full Web, mobile and tablet access, with subscription prices varying by market and according to the option chosen, ranging from digital-only subscriptions to seven-day-a-week full access including print home delivery.
Recently, Martore discussed the paywall issue in an online interview with Bloomberg, suggesting that local content will drive “consumers” to local websites.
“We are actually switching our newspapers — our community newspapers — to a paid content model where we are offering full access to all of the platforms that we provide our great engaging, relevant local content on, be they the print product or our various digital platforms,” she says. “And we have a great history of engaging consumers and readers and viewers in those marketplaces for over 100 years.”
Martore says Gannett’s paywall is going to be different than other models “in that we’re giving full access to our content and it keeps up with the consumer during the course of their day.”
“We believe that local is where people live their lives, whether it’s accessing high school sports scores or pictures of your daughter winning a soccer tournament,” she says. “Or whether it’s gaining access to other information around weather — whether I should bring an umbrella.
“All life is lived locally and that’s our franchise. That’s the relevance and importance of our content is that it is engaging, relevant, very localized content,” says Martore, “not national commoditized content, but relevant and engaging to those consumers in that particular market. And that appeals to the passions and the preferences to what those consumers have in those local markets.”
On ganettblog.blogspot.com, a blog site not affiliated with the company and anchored by a former Gannett employee, many bloggers — mostly former or current (albeit anonymous Gannett staffers) — take issue with Martore, especially in light of newsroom cutbacks.
From a Feb. 24 blog, “anonymous” writes, “Ya gotta give the customers something worth paying for. With nobody left in the newsrooms, where is that valuable content going to come from?”
And from Dec. 7: “This will fail, fail, fail. Unique content my ass. I am a WSJ subscriber and don’t mind paying for digital access, because it is worth it. I see no reason whatsoever to pay for online access to my Gannett site. It’s simply not worth it. I’ll switch to one of the local TV stations [sic] sites. That’s the thing about content, there’s plenty to choose from and it’s free.”
Still, pilot programs have been under way at three Gannett papers — in Tallahassee, Fla.; Greenville, S.C., and St. George, Utah — for more than a year, and those subscribers pay $9.95 a month, or $2 for a 24-hour pass.
Closer to home, Louisiana State Newspapers group is no stranger to the paywall.
At The Daily Review in Morgan City, Publisher Allan Von Werder says the paper has both a website and an e-edition. The website, stmarynow.com, has been up and running for several years, he says, and readers can read some of the stories at no charge.
In order to see the contents of the whole paper — literally, the e-edition is a flip-page model of each and every page — a subscription is necessary. It is accessible from the paper’s website.
The Advocate’s publisher, David Manship, does not have a problem with paywalls and believes it is a trend most newspapers will follow, including his.
“I’ll be honest with you: We’re going to do it,” Manship says. “We just don’t have a day yet. And the reason is you just can’t give away the same information that I’m selling on the street to a guy that buys a hard copy, to a guy that goes online and can read it for free. You’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
Manship says when The Advocate implements a paywall plan, chances are it will be modeled after the NYT’s paywall, particularly the metered approach where after reading a certain amount of stories free of charge, a pay scheme kicks in.
“We haven’t come up with a number yet; we’re kind of waiting to see,” says Manship, adding that it will probably be somewhere between the 15-20 views. “We don’t want to prevent people from looking at our site. I think when you do that, you hurt yourself.”
Paywalls are coming, but newspapers are still studying when to draw the line at free reads.
“Everybody does them a little different,” Manship adds. “I think [with] Gannett — the 15 hits is a good number, I think the five hits is way too low. Heck, some people will go on there just to look at an obit.”
At first, the onslaught of the digital information age intimidated newspapers, and most are still coming to grips with the evolution of technology and digital news readers.
According to data released by the Newspaper Association of America, newspaper websites averaged 111 million unique monthly visitors in the fourth quarter, up nearly 15 percent from a year earlier.
More than 60 percent of adult Internet users visited newspaper sites and increased the amount of time spent on them — a key metric for advertisers because it ups the chance of their ads being noticed — by 14 percent, according to the NAA.
Manship says paywalls are no different than a subscription service found on niche sites, such as those that are sports-related.
“You have to join those things to get in there and look at that stuff,” he says. “We think that our stuff is good enough that after they have gone to the site for whatever number of times we allow them to go free, that they won’t mind paying a nominal fee.”
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