Paper erects pay wall – and traffic goes up!
In fact, page views rose a nifty 5% in the three months since the Georgia newspaper installed a metered system similar to the one just implemented at the Dallas Morning News and soon to debut at the New York Times.
A metered pay system allows site visitors a certain number of free views before they are urged to subscribe. Visitors who don’t pay are blocked from some or all of the content on the site for the rest of the month. Then, they get a chance to come back the next month and start all over again.
While the system implemented in Augusta in December has established the principal of charging for content without, to date, affecting traffic on the site, it is unclear whether it is making any money – or ever will. But that’s fine by Executive Editor Alan English.
“The act of placing a value on our journalism may be more important than any penny we ever collect,” said English in a telephone interview and a series of follow-up emails. “It’s a powerful statement from the publisher and positions us distinctly in the market. If readers still get a certain amount [of content] for free, that's OK.”
According to Omniture data provided by English, traffic at his site counter-intuitively rose by 5% in the three months since the pay system was turned on. Combined page views from December, 2010, through February, 2011, were 23.6 million vs. 22.4 million in the comparable months in the prior years.
The surprising uptick in Augusta contrasts with the loss of nearly half the web traffic 2½ hours to the north at the Greenville (SC) News, which installed a hard pay wall in July that demands $2 a day or $9.95 a month from a visitor who clicks on any article on its site. The 516,821 monthly visits to Greenville Online in January, 2011, were nearly 47% lower than in the same month the previous year, according to Compete.Com.
(Note to G’ville management: You can copy and paste any URL on your site into any search engine, click the story atop the results and read the entire article for free. You might want to fix that.)
English credits the gain at his site to increased efforts in the newsroom to update the presentation of the website on an hourly basis and to post more material from more staffers more often, including photo galleries and short video snips.
“We had a digital growth strategy before we decided to implement the subscription system,” said English, who vigorously eschews the term “pay wall.” The decision to launch a pay strategy, he said, was a call to action throughout the newsroom, adding: “We told ourselves that we had better make good on doing what we told ourselves we needed to do.”
For all the improvements English and his colleagues may have made in their digital operation, the principal reason his traffic was unaffected by the pay system seems to be the generous amount of content a user can access for free before even learning that she is supposed to pay for it. Here’s what I mean:
While the Chronicle says it will allow free access to 25 premium articles a month before a visitor has to pay, dozens of other non-premium articles can be viewed without limitation. I clicked through 21 page views before encountering a screen that told me I had used up five of my 25 allotted premium articles. It is impossible to tell which articles are premium and which are free, but English considers the confusion a plus, not a problem.
Given the liberal amount of free content available at the Augusta Chronicle, it is hard to imagine how many subscriptions the paper is likely to acquire. Although English won’t disclose how many he has sold, he said “we saw a couple hundred subscribers in the first few days” and “we pick up two to eight new people per day.”
Subscriptions are $6.95 a month for digital-only access and $2.95 a month if you take the print edition. Purchases are evenly split between the two plans, said English, adding that he has seen almost no churn.
Based on the experience to date and assuming a constant number of new subscribers on every day of the year for 12 months, the annual revenue from the pay system could range from about $43,000 (if two people subscribe each day) to $173,000 (if eight people subscribe each day).
So long as the newspaper has enough page views to produce enough advertising inventory to satisfy demand, the subscription revenue would appear to be sufficient to support one to four additional bodies in the newsroom (although there can be no guarantee that this is where the windfall would land).
It’s too soon to say whether the Chronicle can sustain the pace of even a couple of fresh pay subscribers per day. And page views are likely to drop when the Chronicle dials down the number of free views it permits, which English said is likely to occur in the near future.
“I would not draw too many conclusions from the early numbers,” he cautioned. “It’s very early in our game and we are still building our strategy. But we are glad to be part of the wave of people who are putting forth the value proposition for content created by professional journalists. Giving it away for all those years was a mistake.”