April 27, 2021

Content on USA Today’s main digital news site has always been free. No longer. Earlier this month, Gannett’s flagship national paper quietly started to put some of its premium stories behind a paywall.

Those interested in reading further are asked to sign up for a digital-only subscription at $4.99 a month.

USA Today published a short note to potential digital subscribers, but Gannett otherwise has not announced the pivot to paid digital. A spokesperson described the offering as a test but said the company would not be willing to discuss business details until later this quarter.

However the design of the initiative is evident just looking at the site. Big investigations and some other stories are labeled “subscribe to view.” My colleague Tom Jones hit the wall last week trying to check out an exposé on sexual assault in the Peace Corps for his Poynter Report newsletter.

Another colleague received an email solicitation for full access to a COVID-19 database and the rest of USA Today’s coverage of the pandemic (at the same $4.99 a month rate).

Gannett CEO Mike Reed has hinted several times this year that USA Today will begin moving away from being completely free. He has defined a goal of reaching 10 million paid digital subscribers company-wide, a tenfold increase, in five years. That would almost certainly entail converting some of USA Today’s 117-million-a-month uniques to paying customers.

Then, in February, he told investors in a conference call that the company’s top priority is “to continue its evolution from a more traditional print media business to a digitally focused content platform.”

Other national publications — The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal — already have millions of paid digital-only subscribers. Typically they offer a fixed or sliding number of free articles a month, then start prospects off with a deeply discounted trial subscription, sometimes at a rate as low as $1 a month.

The USA Today offer is not described as a trial.

Having some articles free and more ambitious ones paywall-protected is not an unusual strategy, especially for publications coming late to building a paid digital base.

Early in the 2010s, Advance Local titles like The Oregonian and The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer beefed up the story count on their digital sites and kept them free while cutting back days of print publication. Over the last several years, most have put some articles behind a wall and started soliciting paid subscriptions.

USA Today faces the hurdle of converting readers accustomed for so long to full access. An FAQ announcement from April 5 leads with the question of why access to some stories has now been blocked. It offers this explanation:

“Select stories are not available without a subscription because they are part of USA Today’s premium experience. Articles and videos elevated as premium represent the best of USA Today’s must-read journalism, anchored in original reporting with visual impact. We invest in this journalism on your behalf.”

The note to subscribers says the premium level comes with access to a subscriber-only behind-the-scenes newsletter and “first access as we begin scheduling subscriber-only events and experiences.”

I see the move addressing two issues but straddling another. USA Today’s advertising and paid circulation (much of it in hotel distribution) have been on a steep slide for years. That was made worse by the 2020 pandemic and near halt in business travel. Like most newspapers in transition, USA Today needs to capture digital subscribers as well as sell digital ads.

Also its 250-plus regional titles are paywall-protected and draw on USA Today for content. That creates an odd situation where a given article might not be available without subscription at a regional paper but could be accessed for free at the USA Today site. (For now, the USA Today and regional digital subscription plans will be “mutually exclusive,” the note to subscribers said.)

On the other hand, large traffic numbers combining the regionals and the free USA Today site have made national digital sales an important line of business for Gannett. In February it added McClatchy and its 30 regional titles as a national sales client.

My guess is that going slow while phasing in digital paid helps preserve that selling point to advertising clients. Plus beta testing makes all kinds of sense for a change of this scale — the company will be harvesting data on which approaches yield the most paid subscribers and whether readers are ready or resistant.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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