SNA’s Interactive Media Alliance (IMA) held a webinar in April on paywalls and metered approaches. Three of our speakers, Roger Coover, President and Publisher, The Stockton Record; Andy Waters, VP, Interactive, Columbia Daily Tribune; and Ernie Schreiber, Director of Content Development, Lancaster Newspapers, Inc., answered a number of questions during the webinar. Below are some we wanted to share. Note that each company has different metered plans and level of experience. For example, Stockton has had a paywall since last year; Columbia’s paywall is fairly new and Lancaster Newspapers is currently only charging for obits outside of their market.
Q: Can you describe the public relations efforts that went along with the introductions of these paywalls?
Roger Coover (RC): Promotions for about four weeks prior to launch explaining the change and why it was necessary. Story on the front page of the paper also explained the changes.
Andy Waters (AW): About two weeks before we launched, we ran a full-page ad in print in the format of a letter explaining that we would begin offering online subscriptions and that 7-day print subscribers would receive the service for free for a month or until their renewal date, whichever was later. We began including the same letter in print subscriber bills. The ad was intended to reach EZPay customers who don’t receive bills. At about the same time, we began a print and online ad campaign emphasizing the value of our news product and reminding readers that they could have it delivered in print, online or on their mobile devices.
Ernie Schreiber (ES): We publicized our subscription program with a story in the newspaper. Because we were the first newspaper to do this with Press+, it attracted attention from industry bloggers. We answered questions and agreed to interviews with those bloggers (Poynter, PaidContent).
Q: In the planning process, did you plan how you would respond to free news content site competitors? Did you consider any competition and how you'd respond?
RC: Our metered content is local and no one else comes close to producing the amount of local we publish. Every market is different and decisions must take competition into account. However, you can still move to a subscription model.
AW: The following is from an FAQ page posted on our website with info about our online subscriptions. (You can see the whole thing at www.columbiatribune.com/faq):
Over the years, there have been free and less costly alternatives to the print edition. Yet, 20,000 households still choose to pay us for the news we deliver every day. Some of our most loyal readers are those who once gave up the Tribune only to return because they weren’t satisfied with other sources for local news. Most people who really care about staying informed about the community see the Tribune as the most reliable, credible and trusted source for local information. Our loyal readers who prefer print continue to subscribe. Many loyal online readers, who are literally scattered around the globe, have advised us to charge for this service, too. The Internet has enabled our readership to grow far beyond our eight-county print delivery area in Mid-Missouri. About 40 percent of our "heavy users" are located outside the print delivery area. Many of these "regulars" are former Boone County residents who want to stay informed about the area, who are rabid Mizzou fans and follow our sports coverage, who have a family member attending school here and who value the Tribune’s editorials and commentary. Many remote readers have suggested we charge them for access because they value our information.
ES: We do not have competitors for local news. There are four TV stations in our market, but there resources are spread across nine counties. We focus on in-depth coverage of one county. We do not attempt to compete for national or international news, although we provide as a secondary element on our website.
Q: Under that assumption that online subscriptions are a long term strategy, do you see the growth in online subscriptions coming from current print subscribers or from new subscribers that were formerly using your free online product? i.e. Are online subscriptions a stop-gap for print circ loss or a growth opportunity for new readers?
RC: Online subscribers usually don’t want print. In our case they pay more for online only than for print. It is their preferred method of delivery. When we sell new subscriptions, we find price is the biggest issue to make the sale which means most start with print only.
AW: I believe most of our online-only subscribers are people who were reading us for free online before we started charging. I do not see any evidence that people are abandoning print and switching to an online-only subscription. I believe any migration in that direction would have occurred while we offered free news online. Despite offering free online access for years, our print circulation had been relatively steady (2-3% loss per year), suggesting to me that most people reading us in print prefer to read us that way. We do know, however, that some people who preferred us in print switched to the Web anyway because they couldn’t justify paying for something that they could access for free online. The upshot is that I see our online service appealing more to people who are not likely to be print readers, so in that sense it’s an opportunity to attract new readers. That said, we are working on a tablet-optimized Web app that we suspect will appeal to people now reading us in print. This might be an avenue to transition print readers to an digital platform. This is both an opportunity and a risk, so we have to proceed with caution. I see this transition happening over decades because I believe there will be demand for our print edition for many, many years to come while we continue to attract new readers to our digital editions.
ES: Growth is most likely to come from new subscribers -- non-readers of the paper or casual readers of the paper, those who were a big part of our churn. It is coming only secondarily from print subscribers who migrate to digital devices.
It is difficult to know who online readers are, let alone what their past reading habits have been. But, when I look through our Facebook friends – people who want to read our news online as it happens – I see an audience that is vastly different from our print audience. Online readers are young, urban, totally at ease with online media. Print readers are old, suburban or rural, tentative at best in accessing online news.
Our phone apps are pulling in several thousand new readers, most of whom are not print subscribers.
Q: I've heard most papers who went to a paywall experienced an initial drop in traffic. Was that the case for your operation?
RC: 25% drop in unique and 35% drop in page views. We still don’t sell 100% of our available ad impressions locally and traffic is growing again.
AW: We have seen a drop in traffic, but not more than we expected. We were about 4,000,000–5,000,000 pageviews before launch and are at about 3,000,000 now. It’s important to keep in mind that the lost pageviews were meaningless to us. We still have more ad inventory than we can sell to local advertisers. Any revenue we might lose from network ads filling remnant space is insignificant compared with what we have gained by offering online subscriptions, not the least of which is a new subscription revenue stream.
ES: No. Our obituary readership has increased steadily, faster than the site as a whole.
Q: How did the funeral homes react to obits moved behind pay wall?
RC: No reaction from them, although some have their own websites where they post the obits of their customers. However, they don’t have the draw or traffic of a local news site.
AW: There has been no reaction from funeral homes.
ES: Because we are charging only out-of-market readers, they had no problem with metered subscriptions. Local readers, their primary audience, are not paying to read online. (Of course, they are paying for print copies of the paper.)
Q: Have these changes left your newspapers in a significantly more healthy condition or is it viewed as just a minor help?
RC: If you charge all your subscribers an additional fee for access in addition to the online only accounts, the revenue can be significant. You will get quicker results by automatically moving everyone to the all access rate and informing the customer they are welcome to back down to print only.
AW: This has been a significant new revenue stream for us. In addition, we are no longer in the unsustainable position of encouraging people to drop our print product and start reading us for free online, where the advertising model is not working. That’s a huge benefit even without the new revenue. If people want to read us online that’s fine, but we can only allow that if it doesn’t undermine our business.
ES: Our experiment with a metered subscription was small – 3% of our uniques. The revenue was correspondingly small.
To join SNA’s Interactive Media Alliance, contact Tanya Henderson at 804.262.3341 or by email at Tanya.Henderson@suburban-news.org.