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 BostonGlobe.com, a new site spotlighting content from the printed newspaper. The company’s existing Boston.com site will remain free but will include much less content from the newspaper.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 SME.sk, 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.