NewsPay: Bill Mitchell describes what it takes to sustain entrepreneurial journalism.

It’s time: 5 reasons to put up a metered paywall

For media executives awaiting reassuring evidence before experimenting with digital subscriptions, the time has arrived.

Simply put, their more adventurous colleagues at other companies have discovered multiple paths around the biggest risk attached to the pursuit of subscription revenue: diminished audience reach.

Here’s how they’ve navigating that tricky challenge:

  • They’ve adjusted their paywall meters to permit whatever number of monthly free visits makes the most sense in their balance of reach and revenue. The trend, by the way, is definitely toward leaky walls rather than hard ones.
  • They’ve recognized that, financially, their sites could afford to lose substantial traffic because their “sell-through” of online ads rarely approached their inventory anyway.
  • They’ve made smart decisions, journalistically, about what content should remain outside the wall.

Companies big and small are discovering that their pre-wall fears of precipitous drops in traffic just haven’t materialized. Metered walls are not the only paths into paid content, of course. Today, the Boston Globe will begin charging a flat fee of $3.99 a week for access to, a new site spotlighting content from the printed newspaper. The company’s existing site will remain free but will include much less content from the newspaper.

Editors Dirk Nolde, Jim Roberts and Matúš Kostolný say their paywall fears have faded (Wan-Ifra)

The comforting news about the limited downside of paid says nothing about the potential upside of the subscriptions themselves. But one thing at a time.

For now, the reduced risk of losing audience — coupled with modestly encouraging early subscription results — should be enough to provoke some serious strategy sessions among the late adopters.

Given the long-term vulnerability of their online advertising prospects, news organizations owe it to themselves — and more importantly, to the future of independent journalism in the public interest — to explore the possibilities for online subscriptions.

Two caveats: Even the most promising streams of digital subscription revenue can’t compensate for the declining print revenues for advertising and circulation. But as news organizations begin assembling hybrid collections of revenue to make up as much of that ground as possible, digital subscriptions will surely have a role.

Based on recent conversations with builders of paywalls of various sorts in various circumstances, I see at least four more reasons — in addition to the reduced risk to reach — to experiment with digital subscriptions:

  1. The evidence indicates that some portion of online audiences — the percentages vary widely — are willing to pay for online content. Some money is on the table, in other words, and news organizations should have pretty good reasons if they’re just going to leave it there.
  2. As news organizations continue in their unpredictable transition from analog to digital delivery, they need to establish a paying relationship with their digital customers – and not just their advertisers — sooner rather than later.
  3. Putting a price on their digital wares is encouraging newsrooms to step up the quality — in economic terms, the new value — of the online experience they expect people to pay for.
  4. As social media plays a larger role in the distribution of and traffic to digital news, media companies need to develop strategies that generate revenue without impeding the social networking of their content.

These and other reasons were confirmed for me over the weekend in Vienna, where I moderated a paywall panel at the World Editors Forum that included representatives from The New York Times; SME, one of the leading daily papers in the tiny country of Slovakia; and Berliner Morgenpost, one of several local and national papers covering news in the German capital.

Dirk Nolde, digital managing editor at Berliner Morgenpost, told me in an email before our session that he and his newsroom colleagues were “terrified” when the business department at the 123,000 copy-a-day paper proposed the paywall. Their fears were intensified, he said, by the lack of paid content in any of the competitors’ sites.

“We are doomed,” he recalled thinking. “But we were not.”

As Rachel McAthy recounts in her good coverage of the session, monthly visits have grown more than 100 percent since the wall was erected in December 2009. That’s partly because of the substantial content residing outside the wall, of course.

Nolde said the paper wants to pursue even more audience growth, though, and intends to tweak its meter after the first of the year. “We’re going to get leakier,” he said.

Interestingly, all three of the participants in the Saturday panel agreed that paid content has improved digital attitudes in the newsroom. Said Jim Roberts of The New York Times: “There is more of an investment I feel in the newsroom among our journalists since the introduction of the paywall. They feel a greater stake in the product. People seem a little more willing to work on a piece of video, file early for the Web, etc.”

Roberts, who said he originally opposed the idea of the wall but has become a believer, added: “There is an overall feeling we’re creating a digital product that has value. We’re feeling that sensibility very strongly.”

Roberts, Nolde and Matúš Kostolný, editor of, all offered lessons learned for news organizations considering a move to print, beginning, as Nolde put it, with “communication, communication, communication” with readers about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Read more


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Good starting point for any new venture: Following your customers

Jon Dube has collected a dozen useful tips from Silicon Alley’s Startup2011 conference, but I find Tips Number 8 and 9 especially relevant:

8. “Find out who your users are and religiously, passionately follow your users,” (BetaWorks CEO John) Borthwick says. One thing we do wrong, he says, is try to figure out a business model first before we figure out what our users want. To be truly successful, follow your users.

9. Focus on your product, what you can control and how to “delight your customers.” - serial entrepreneur Gina Bianchini

Those ideas got me thinking about a side project I’ve been working on with friends over the past year aimed at creating a new sort of news operation in Detroit.

The initiative is focused on the reshaping the 143 square miles of land and water of a city that was originally planned for 2 million people but has a current population of only about 700,000. The project, called Detroit143, didn’t survive the second round of the Knight Challenge grant but we’re seeking other sources of funding.

We’ve given a lot of thought to our potential audiences (city residents, business owners, elected officials), and we put together a day-long conference last year to encourage community learning and discussion of the roots of Detroit’s problems — and what stories need telling next.

But that’s just a start on the listening we need to institutionalize going forward, and Borthwick’s charge to “passionately follow your users” really hit home.

Rachel Davis Mersey, author of Can Journalism Be Saved?, gave me some good ideas the other day about understanding the psychological needs underlying an audience’s media needs.

In the context of Detroit143, that means not only providing content relevant to reshaping the city, but gaining a more visceral feel for what our various constituencies might most appreciate from an operation like ours.

All of which leads us to tip Number 9 from Gina Bianchini: Figuring out ways we can “delight” these audiences. A tall order, but just the right focus. Read more


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Three takeaways from Columbia’s Business of Digital Journalism study: Audience, advertising, aggregation

Newsrooms, take note: Before you crank up your staffers in pursuit of today’s stories, have them spend an hour understanding its future.

It’s not that Columbia University answers all that many questions in its analysis of the dollars — and nickels and dimes — of journalism. But along with responses from Jan Schaffer, Felix Salmon and Staci Kramer, Columbia authors Bill Grueskin, Ava Seave and Lucas Graves offer up an accessible package of stats, nuggets and case studies that smart readers will translate to tips for their own circumstances.

The 143-page report concludes with nine recommendations — and you may find a reverse read the most effective way through the document.

Here’s what stands out for me after a quick, early morning read:

  • Audience: We’ve known for years that journalism’s problem is not diminished audience. The audience for news is growing dramatically, dispersing itself into multiple audiences across even more venues. The Columbia study does a good job analyzing those different audiences and, with multiple case studies, showing how some news organizations are beginning to monetize them quite effectively. Pay walls are just a small part of that story. The paper’s lead author, Bill Grueskin, was at The Wall Street Journal when its pay wall was introduced. The authors suggest journalists would be ill-served by relying too heavily on it for their financial futures.

Are you still with me, newsrooms? Here’s an idea for tomorrow’s morning meeting: What implications does the Columbia study hold for your news organization? Read more


Thursday, May 05, 2011

How Google’s Panda Update is inadvertently encouraging even more content farms

When Google introduced its new algorithm earlier this year aimed at elevating the quality of its search results, some of the hardest-hit sites were content farms like eHow, run by Demand Media.

An NPR story Tuesday shows that the Panda Update is driving down the search rankings of retailers, too, especially those with dozens of links to product descriptions that are generic and common to multiple sites.

The idea of Panda, after all, is to help users find content with some distinctiveness and usefulness. But what NPR discovered in profiling a big furniture broker Tuesday are the seeds for a whole new category of content farms: fast and cheap content dashed off for the sole purpose of restoring the search rankings of retail sites.

Following up a similar Wall Street Journal story published last month, NPR recounted the plight of One Way Furniture, a Long Island furniture broker with dozens of links to everything from accent chairs to writing tables.

The broker’s response to fears the store’s Google rank would drop? Hire a freelancer to add “more romance” to those descriptions, at a rate of $1 per listing. The freelancer, Lauren Fernstrom, told NPR that she’s cranking them out at a rate of 20 per hour.

Somehow, this doesn’t seem to be what Google exec Matt Cutts had in mind when he told NPR that Panda is aimed at encouraging website owners to “put a little bit more individual care and attention and work into the content of their site — whether it be a product description, or a blog post.”

In an email exchange I had with Fernstrom Wednesday afternoon, she pointed out the difference between useful descriptions of individual products and content that serves a broader purpose and wider audience.

As she understands her assignment from the furniture store, she says, “I am not tasked with creating consumable news for online consumers.”

But that may be precisely where the larger opportunity lies for news organizations and, for that matter, out-of-work journalists: Is there a sweet spot of price and time that would enable the creation of evergreen content about products that would be useful to consumers beyond the purchase of a particular item?

How much would One Way Furniture have to pay somebody to create content about writing desks, say, that potential buyers would find useful over time? And maybe even dispose them towards buying one from the retailer who provided such useful content?

Part of the answer will be found in custom content, the emerging form of advertising that equips brands to serve potential customers with useful information as opposed to irritating, interruptive messages.

Some related resources:

Done right, it’s entirely possible that custom content will satisfy Panda at the same time it sells some furniture. Read more


Friday, Apr. 08, 2011

We Media NYC cranks up a checklist for entrepreneurs and their ventures

The day was almost done by the time judge Bill Weiss described what he liked about the two ventures awarded $25,000 each in Wednesday’s pitch competition at We Media NYC.

He said the panel of judges picked Pando Projects and Stable Renters because, among other things, they look like they’ll be able to:

  • Transform intention into action;
  • Leverage a dynamic “that’s already out there”;
  • Gain enough traction that, eventually, they’ll scale up to what he termed “a reasonable size”;
  • Make a real difference in their ventures with the $25,000 prize money.

More generally, he encouraged all entrepreneurs in the room to pay more attention to the outcomes they hope to achieve, to think internationally and to see if they can build operations that are lean enough to be called “asset-light.”

I believe this is the fourth We Media conference I’ve attended, and some of Weiss’ comments echoed advice that he and others offered at the close of the pitch session back in 2007.

Interestingly, despite intriguing pitches for such locally-rooted projects as FastCast and Neighborhood Pages, Wednesday’s discussions yielded little progress on what Knight Foundation CEO Albert Ibargüen described as an urgent problem at the 2009 gathering: the disconnect between journalism and geography.

The day was packed with useful tips on other fronts, though, and I’ve used Storify to organize tweets around four main topics:

  • Becoming an entrepreneur
  • Creating a venture
  • Pitching a venture
  • Convening entrepreneurs

Read more


Monday, Mar. 28, 2011

A Twitter countdown to the NYT paywall

The discussion falls into several categories, including:

  • Dire warnings
  • Easy workarounds
  • Ethical questions
  • Best wishes
  • Fun stuff
  • Actual news

Read more on Twitter at the hashtags of #paywall and #nytpaywall.

Read more

1 Comment

Thursday, Mar. 17, 2011

New York Times subscription plans all about one challenge: Reader migration

The digital subscription plans announced Thursday by the New York Times make clear that it’s time to retire the paywall metaphor. In fact, what the Times is really talking about is a forced march of its readers.

The variety of payment plans offered suggests a somewhat flexible forced march, but a forced march nonetheless.

The paper learned from its earlier, abortive forays into digital paid content that a single, simple route will not work for the wide range of Times readers — or for the various revenue streams the company is trying to preserve, grow or create.

So instead of charging only certain customers (overseas readers endured this experiment for a period in the 1990s) or charging only for certain content (TimesSelect singled out editorials and columns between 2005 and 2007), the latest plans seek payment for most of the paper’s content from most of its most devoted readers.

The meter scheduled to begin ticking March 28 will permit free direct access to up to 20 articles per month and many more if linked from various search engines and social media recommendation tools.

The Times highlights three payment options (each provides access for four-week periods):

Interestingly, that list does not highlight the payment option that represents the best value for readers, for the Times and, for that matter, for the newspaper industry in general. That’s the bundled access to all digital content that will accompany any of the various subscription plans available for delivery of the printed edition of the paper.

Spend $30 (less in the New York metro area) to get the Sunday Times delivered to your home for four weeks, and you get the same access that costs $35 for all-digital customers, plus the printed paper.

Some analysts have cautioned other news organizations to remember that they’re NOT The New York Times, and that what works for the Times will not necessarily work for them.

True enough — except for that print/digital combo offer.

More than any of the other schemes unveiled Thursday, the print/digital option holds potentially powerful lessons for publishers of all sizes.

That’s because it charts a path from print to digital that reflects the substantial revenue still generated by print (especially advertising), and because it recognizes the mixed media approach that more and more Americans are following in pursuit of news.

There’s plenty of room to quibble about price points in all of the options outlined by the Times Thursday. Steve Outing, for example, argues for a bottom pricing tier of 99 cents that he says would pay off by attracting so many more customers at the lower price.

Outing says it’s time for the Times to step up to the risk of pricing the paper’s digital products so far below print that it hastens the migration from print to digital.

But given the importance of print revenue to the bottom line of most news companies (in most cases, accounting for 80 to 90 percent), it’s easy to see why most publishers would disagree.

It’s also easy to see why, as Josh Benton points out, the Times is willing to subsidize the delivery of its premier journalistic product by pricing its print/digital combo offer below the price of digital only.

The combo option is available only to readers who live in an area where the Times Company provides delivery of the New York Times or, overseas, the International Herald Tribune.

For the tens of thousands of core readers who reside outside those delivery areas — or, as Benton notes, readers who just don’t want the paper edition — the Times might want to add one more alternative to its collection of reader migration routes. Call it the Sunday Gift Pack, and enable the digerati to link up with a school, a library or a newsprint-loving household that expands the universe of readers getting the news they need in the form they want it.

That’s the sort of migration — adding print as well as digital readers — that could help render the Times’ forced march of its readers profitable as well as flexible. Read more


Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

Glass sphere, dollar, three

Why user says it ‘is one of the best advertising experiences I’ve ever had’ founder David Cohn has generated about $65,000 with an approach that remains true to his main focus — user-funded journalism — at the same time it broadens the pool of payers for news.

Cohn launched a couple of years ago as an early experiment in crowdfunding that enables individuals to donate money to support specific reporting projects.

Tuesday afternoon, Cohn issued what he termed a “state of the Spot” report summarizing the site’s experience with 160 projects funded by 5,000 contributors. Along the way, has partnered with 95 organizations, sometimes involving quite imaginative alliances, and has picked up seven journalism awards.

But it’s the site’s use of advertiser surveys that I’ll focus on here.

In brief, it works like this: An advertiser agrees to put up a certain amount of money, say, $5,000. Cohn works with the advertiser, often a foundation or cause-oriented group, to create a survey with a few questions designed to be completed in just a couple of minutes. Upon completion of the survey, the user is invited to allocate $5 of the ad revenues to a story in need of funding on the site.

The survey gets the advertiser increased awareness as well as the user opinions reflected in the survey responses.

It also accomplishes some things for It creates a new form of ad revenue and it gives users a way of supporting journalism without any money leaving their pockets.

Community-Focused Sponsorship InfoView more presentations from David Cohn.

Some excerpts from my e-mail exchange with Cohn about these surveys:

“The idea has always been in the background but it really hit home when Spot.Us was approached by an organization that wanted to fund us to report on a specific issue. That goes against what Spot.Us stands for but, if I’m honest, I really wanted their money! So I told them we’d promote their specific issue and make sure people engaged with the issue, etc. — but that once they did that we’d let the community decide how the funds get distributed.

“In fact, our current sponsorship was very similar. The Roblee Foundation was interested in seeing more coverage on issues of teen pregnancy. Rather than just hand us the money and then us turn that into reporting about specific issues (which many nonprofits do) we took the money and created a survey about teen pregnancy and how it’s portrayed in the media. This way the Roblee Foundation accomplishes its goal of raising awareness about an important issue and the community gets to fund important stories of their choosing.”

Cohn also shared what he described as his “favorite feedback from users”: ‘This is one of the best advertising experiences I’ve ever had. I gave something of what I know, I got something of what they wanted me to know, and I gave the resulting spot $ to a story I wanted to support.’ “

That sounds like a satisfied customer to me, the sort of satisfaction news organizations are going to need to cultivate in the interesting days ahead. Read more


Friday, Feb. 18, 2011

Ebert fishes some lessons from his (revenue) streams

In a followup e-mail, Roger Ebert elaborated on some of the developments I described in Thursday’s post about his Tweets of Amazon affiliate links, a venture he likens to fishing.

I’ll sum them up like this:

  • Revenue trackable to specific links and products carries extra value because it enables publishers to understand, on a daily basis, what’s working and what’s not.
  • A publisher’s increased transparency about commercial initiative can reduce user suspicion and irritation.
  • Inviting loyal readers to pay more than the stated price for a valued product or service can generate more revenue than you might expect.
  • And for that matter, even when Ebert issues what might be termed an “unendorsement,” there’s no telling what people will spend money on!

I haven’t been able to shake loose actual dollar figures, but Ebert did tell me that his Amazon tweets are “a good deal more successful” than the membership initiative he launched last year to support his weekly Ebert Club newsletter.

And he said the membership fees are generating enough cash to pay someone (Marie Haws in Vancouver) to spend 40 hours a week producing the newsletter and various Ebert blog pages.

Asked about his Amazon affiliate tweets to merchandise for sale by the online retailer, Ebert wrote: “Amazon income is encouraging because I can see every day which links actually resulted in purchases, which would suggest those people, at least, appreciated them. After I wrote the blog entry explaining why I was doing it, complaints have died way down.”

He pointed out that “certain items ring a bell,” noting: “A package of 20 older Hitchcock films for $5 has sold more than 100 times, and still sells one a day two months later. Other times, I use Amazon links with my tongue in my cheek. For example, as one who has no love of video games, I noted a subscription deal for X-Box Magazine and said despite the bargain price I wouldn’t be subscribing. To my surprise, I sold about 15 subscriptions!”

Finally, he described a phenomenon that NPR’s Andy Carvin encountered with his request for donations to local public radio stations, and that I’ll explore with founder David Cohn in an upcoming NewsPay: Sometimes, it pays simply to ask more of your most loyal readers and users.

In response to my questions about the membership fees he introduced last year, he replied: “With the Ebert Club, the original annual fee was $5,” he told me Thursday. “Too low, everyone told me. How could it be worth anything if it was only $5? Mid-year, we added an option on PayPal that members could, if they chose, pay $10 or $15, and most of them chose to pay more.

“We will soon publish the 52nd issue. After that date, all current members will stay at their current level, but new members will pay $10, $15 or $20. Feedback indicates that at these levels members are happy to support he newsletter and, through it, the site.”

Asking for help is paying off for Ebert not only financially but in terms of shaping whatever understanding he has with his audience about how he conducts — and supports — himself online.

Bob Steele and I weren’t thinking of audience discussion about commercial tweets when we wrote in this Word document about enlisting users in online ethics guidelines back in 2005, but the discussion on Ebert’s blog and, more recently, on his Facebook page reflect the sort of collaboration we were hoping for. Read more


Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011


Thumbs up for Roger Ebert’s new revenue model on Twitter

Six weeks into what some have billed “the year of paid content,” the most interesting ideas I’ve seen so far have less to do with corporate policy than they do with personal enterprise.

My colleague, Mallary Tenore, wrote Friday about the success NPR’s Andy Carvin has enjoyed in encouraging his Twitter followers to support their local public radio stations.

This week, amid ongoing debate about whether content creators will ever share any of the value they’ve built for the likes of HuffingtonPost and Twitter, I’ve been watching the little revenue stream that Roger Ebert has flowing with his tweets.

About 1 a.m. Wednesday, after a day of tweets about Jane Seymour’s birthday, the replacement of Ebert’s feeding tube and Middle East analysis, the legendary film critic tweeted this: “Western Digital WD TV Live Network-ready HD Media Player, 23% off. Everything seems to be moving in this direction.”

The untrained eye might not notice that shortened “amzn” link as a signal that Ebert stands to take a 7 percent cut on purchases his followers make after clicking into, but his commercial Tweets have grown common enough that regular followers are surely getting the message.

Ebert says he devotes an average of four of his 25 to 30 daily Tweets to recommendations for merchandise available for sale at He does that as an Amazon affiliate, an arrangement that more and more publishers (including Poynter) have made with the online retailer in recent years.

Amazon links have more traditionally been embedded in text or listings (for books, for example), as opposed to Tweets, which more typically include a dimension of recommendation as well as information.

Any framework for generating revenue from social media should reflect the ethos of the medium itself: personal, authentic, respectful of audience and relevant to the context. From what I can tell scanning his recent tweets, Ebert measures up to those, with a few question marks involving unusual merchandise. But even his tweets about clothing, for the most part, somehow fit.

The size of Ebert’s audience (approaching 350,000 Twitter followers as of Thursday morning) is not the only element that sets him apart from other journalists. A commercial message that makes sense for a critic raises a whole other set of questions for a journalist whose focus is fact as opposed to opinion.

When asked about his Amazon deals by Christopher Heine of ClickZ, Ebert published his answers on his Sun-Times blog: “Have I made a fortune from Amazon? No. Have I made some? Yes. Am I happy to have it? You bet. Have I been amused? Yes. It’s kind of like fishing.”

Ebert also invited users to have their say about his Amazon ads, and more than 100 did so.

A few raised objections, but most told him, in effect, “no big deal,” or thanked him for the valuable tips he provides about good buys in videos, books, clothing and, among other things, coconut milk.

“Glad to have the tips, Roger! Keep ‘em coming,” wrote DannyNM.

Another reader wasn’t so sure at first. “I was disconcerted the first few times I followed one of Robert Ebert’s links to Amazon,” wrote Joann DiNova, “but have since welcomed them with interest. It’s rather like having a worldly, knowledgeable, interesting uncle who is sharing unusual or hard-to-find or little-known things I know I’m likely to appreciate. And his interests always tell me more about him that I’m happy to learn.”

Some of Ebert’s Amazon tweets, which he says are transparently commercial by virtue of the shortened “amzn” link, provoke debate and discussion among followers who challenge the value of the item or send Tweets with what they maintain are better deals. An hour after Ebert tweeted the link to the high def media player this morning, for example, a follower tweeted what he insisted was a better deal.

One commenter on Ebert’s blog encouraged him to use “an established Twitter network like Magpie or SponsoredTweets,” where he might generate as much as $200 per Tweet.

In his interview with ClickZ, Ebert said he’s not interested in options like that: “No tweet of mine is or ever has been ‘spnsored’ or paid. Every tweet is my own doing. I will never, ever, have a sponsored Twitter account. … I write every single word on my Twitter account, and everything else under my name.”

SponsoredTweets offers proportionately less for Twitter accounts with fewer followers, of course, as I discovered when I found tweets to my 1,700 followers valued at about $1.93 each. (I opted out.)

Ebert was wise to do so, too, even though the financial sacrifice is a lot bigger for him than it would be for me. SponsoredTweets stresses that the user has the final say whether to send one of its commercial messages or not, but that misses the point. Even if I don’t object to the commercial message I’m sending, it’s still someone else’s message going out under my name — a fundamental violation of the social media ethos.


Ebert is becoming something of a digital revenue innovator. I wrote last year about the membership model for his newsletter.

Update: I followed up this report with a new post that includes information from an e-mail exchange with Ebert.

Next up on NewsPay: another example of social media revenue. Read more