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Mankato Free Press unveils pay wall where print subscribers pay

We may be at the point where newspaper pay walls are no longer news — the Star Tribune, Rochester Post Bulletin andSt. Cloud Times, among others, now have them. But on Monday, the Mankato Free Press deployed one with a slight twist.

Unlike the Strib’s or the New York Times’, the Free Press will make current print subscribers pay more for full digital access. The fee is modest — a buck a month, or $10 a year. Still, it goes against the conventional wisdom that folks already paying you shouldn’t get something (free digital) "taken away."

Free Press publisher Jim Santori says his calculation was simple: “We feel we have developed over the past year a product that has value. We appreciate the print subscribers we have, and have been working toward methods in which we can treat our subscribers as ‘members’ — not unlike MPR’s model. One of the privileges of ‘membership’ is a discount to our online product.”

Otherwise, the Free Press model has similarities to the Times, which Santori says he watched. The pay wall is technically a meter – 10 pages a month are free to anyone, and obits, classifieds, weddings, engagements and celebrations are always free. More than that, non-subscribers must pay $4.99 a month.

Santori says he expects “a very modest increase in revenue.” The point is not to supplant print circulation revenue, he adds, again invoking the “member” ethos:

“I just feel like it finally gets our readers to understand that online has been developed as a separate product with a number of online-only features like CoverItLive, blogs, breaking news, police blotters, crime maps, etc. – and that product is worth something. News coverage is not free and it gives our readers an opportunity to support what we are doing in a modest way.”

Santori says he doesn’t know how what percent of readers will pay — “What, you think we have a big research team like the New York Times to predict such things!” — but guesses a “10-12 percent” page view drop.

“We do know about 60 percent of our users access more than 10 pages a month and seem the most loyal,” he notes.

As for web advertisers, the Free Press doesn’t sell by CPM (a page view measure), instead selling page positions and other various slots. Says Santori, “Anecdotally, we have heard elsewhere advertisers liked the notion of a pay wall, because those who pay are more dedicated and potentially more valuable users. We’ll see if the same holds here.”

For journalism-business junkies, the Free Press worked with Press+, the Steve Brill-Gordon Crovitz start-up that pushed metered pay walls since before they were cool. (Brill, founder of The American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, and Crovitz, ex- of the Wall Street Journal and a current member of the Star Tribune’s board, sold the company to R.R. Donnelly, but remain in management.)

A company spokeswoman says Press+ currently has 220 clients with 300 slated for 2012, but would not say if the Free Press is the first in Minnesota, citing confidentiality.

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