Paywall pioneer Augusta Chronicle simplifies its digital subscriptions

One of the nation’s first newspapers to implement and master the intricacies of a digital paywall plan is radically simplifying it.

Effective immediately, The Augusta Chronicle will stop offering print-only subscriptions, and there will no longer be a surcharge for access to digital platforms. In addition to print and a website, the Chronicle currently offers an e-Replica edition, a mobile/smart phone version, and an iPad app. Sunday’s announcement said that versions for the Kindle Fire and Android tablet are coming.

The new single subscription allows access to print and all digital versions.

At the same time, the basic subscription price will rise by $44.20 per year, an 8.6 percent increase over the previous price. The Chronicle will also offer expanded coverage and new membership benefits.

The Chronicle started its paywall plan in November 2010, five months ahead of The New York Times’ much analyzed “metered model.” Like the Times, the Chronicle allowed free access to a limited number of articles, then asked readers to pay a monthly fee for full access. Unlike the Times, it asked print readers (at a base of $6.95 a week) to pay an additional $2.95 a week for digital.

Both papers have been able to maintain former levels of digital traffic, and print circulation numbers have held steady or grown.

As I and others have written, the Times’s success has helped encourage several hundred more papers to follow the paywall path, but the Augusta version was both earlier and a more persuasive model for  a typical metro or smaller daily.  Many of the plans adopted in the last year similarly charged print subscribers a small additional amount for digital access.

That is exactly the feature that has disappeared in the new Chronicle model, announced in several columns and house ads on Sunday.

Subscribers will have the options of daily delivery, a weekend package or Sunday only — in theory avoiding the production and distribution expense and waste to advertisers of delivering more days of print than a given household wants.

A digital-only subscription is available, but it costs a little more than the digital and print combo (borrowing from the Los Angeles Times model introduced earlier this year). In effect, you need to pay NOT to get the Sunday paper — an arrangement that reflects how popular Sundays are for insert advertisers and how eager newspaper organizations are to get it distributed as widely as possible.

The Chronicle’s additional coverage includes a recently started Sunday opinion section and more coverage of crime and other local news. The membership benefits include added coupons and loyalty program rewards.

The new plan replaces an assortment of free trial offers, which suggests that the pickup rate on those was low.

The organization says it will be spending more on its news report — an obvious contrast to the deep staff cuts that are accompanying Advance Publications “digital first” push and cutback in print frequency in neighboring Alabama and New Orleans.

One could also view the strategy, at the flagship paper for Morris Publishing Group, as largely focusing for now on circulation and print advertising revenues rather than placing a big bet on a quick transition to robust digital advertising income.

In earlier interviews, Vice President of Audience Alan English has said that digital subscriptions would generate some new revenues but that the more important goal is to establish that the news report has value and therefore costs something no matter what platform a reader chooses.

If, as seems to be the case, an influential paywall pioneer thinks it has found a better way, I would expect Augusta’s second iteration and its results to be closely watched throughout the industry.

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