For a decade now, newspapers have been trying to atone for their “original sin”: offering free web content in the early days of the Internet, thus training their readers to expect something for nothing.
In recent years, newspapers, including the Star Tribune and the New York Times, have adopted what’s called the metered paywall model. Readers are allowed to view a certain number of articles each month for free, typically 10 to 20. After that, they can’t read any more unless they pay.
The metered paywall has generally been considered a big success in industry circles. And now, finally, the most prominent holdout has caved.
John Paton, CEO of Digital First — which runs the Pioneer Press and 74 other daily papers — has been the industry’s loudest voice favoring free access on the web. Paton’s vision aimed at attracting readers (eyeballs) in such great numbers that news organizations could make money selling digital ads to a large audience.
Putting up paywalls, Paton argued, would drive readers elsewhere for their news, thus defeating the goal of amassing a sizable audience to sell advertisers.
Last week, he threw in the towel. Posting on his blog, Paton reluctantly announced that Digital First papers would adopt a metered paywall system.
“Let’s be clear, paid digital subscriptions are not a long-term strategy,” Paton wrote. “They don’t transform anything; they tweak. At best, they are a short-term tactic. … But it’s a tactic that will help us now.”
Frankly, he admitted, his newspapers could use the dough: “We need more gas in the tank if we are going to complete this journey of print-to-digital transformation,” Paton wrote.
The Pioneer Press has an FAQ on its site explaining the new All-Access Subscription. It doesn’t say what the monthly limit on articles is. Instead, it notes: “We have set the meter on TwinCities.com high enough that many readers may never reach it, but if you are a regular/daily reader (and we hope you are), then you will want to subscribe to ensure you continue to have access to the news and information that matters to you.”
There are ways for savvy Internet users to get around paywalls, but the average reader is likely to either go elsewhere or pony up for continued access. The paper is charging only $2 a week for unlimited digital access and $7 a week for unlimited digital plus a seven-day print subscription.
That’s cheap. I hope regular readers of the Pioneer Press vote “yes” with their pocketbooks.