The New York Times Co., which is not a Press+ client, served as a model for the rest of the industry. The Times says 454,000 people have signed up for digital access to the Times and International Herald Tribune in the year since it started charging. It is cutting free access from 20 to 10 pages a month starting this month. The Times charges as much as $35 a month for full access to its content.
This isn't the Times' first attempt at a pay wall. In 2005, the company launched TimesSelect, which fenced off premium news stories and commentary by Times columnists including Maureen Dowd, Joe Nocera, and Thomas Friedman. Readers paid $7.95 a month or $49.95 a year to read TimesSelect content. The company ended TimesSelect in 2007, explaining that it could generate more revenue by making content available for free and supporting it with advertising.
Under its recent pay wall plan, the Times' digital and print circulation revenue grew 5 percent to $242 million in the final quarter of 2011. That helped blunt the impact of an ad revenue drop of 7 percent to $359 million. Overall revenue was down 3 percent.
That success, although with one of the best brands in journalism, has prompted others to follow suit, including some of Lee Enterprises Inc.'s 52 newspapers, and some of Tribune Co.'s 12 newspapers, which include the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.
Gannett Co. Inc., publisher of USA Today, said in February that it would expand its online pay walls from six test markets to all 80 of its small-market newspapers by the end of the year. The company is limiting free access to five to 15 stories a month depending on the market, and offering free digital access with at least a Sunday print subscription. At the same time, Gannett is raising single-copy prices — sometimes by doubling them — and raising subscription prices by as much as a third for its printed newspapers. Combined with the digital push, the company expects its changes to add $100 million in annual profit.
Gannett says that by bundling digital access with paid print subscriptions, enough people will keep subscribing at the higher subscription price to more than offset the loss of revenue from those who cancel because of the price hike.
That assumption is proving true in Gannett's six test markets. The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., for example, is now charging $15 a month for a digital and print subscription, up from one offer of $12.75 for print only. The early reaction to the change is positive, says Bob Dickey, president of Gannett's U.S. community publishing division.
"This is a turning point for us," Dickey says. "What we are saying is our content has great value and it serves a great purpose. The consumers have told us that."
Newspapers that have tried a pay wall say online visits decrease — at first. The Star Tribune's online page views dropped by up to 15 percent before rebounding to pre-pay wall levels within a few weeks, says Gursha. Lee's Billings Gazette saw traffic fall by a quarter and then bounce back within a few months.
The Dallas Morning News took a slightly different approach when it installed what's known as a "leaky pay wall" in March last year. Editors tag exclusive or premium stories and reserve them for paying subscribers, while giving all other stories away for free. Although the move reduced online traffic by about a third, the newspaper has seen a steady flow of new digital subscribers, says Morning News publisher Jim Moroney. Print circulation revenue, meanwhile, also has gone up.
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