NAA mediaXchange 2014

Publishers: Paywalls Vary But Get Results

There are numerous paywall models being tried out at newspapers today, but a panel of newspaper executives speaking at the NAA's mediaXchange conference say that most of them have been effective. "Ultimately it boils down to the value proposition to the consumer, and that comes back to content," says Morris Publishing's Jeff Hartley, noting that for paywalls to be successful, papers must give subscribers something worth paying for.
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DENVER -- A cross-section of publishers attested to the success of their digital subscription models at the Newspaper Association of America's mediaXchange here on Tuesday, even if the executions varied widely.

Ray Pearce, VP of consumer marketing at The New York Times, says that by the end of 2013, the paper had hit 760,000 digital-only paid subscribers. "We're finding that meter still works for us," he says of the 10-story-per-month limit on free access.

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Pearce also indicated the Times was about to release some new products including the already-announced NYT Now, which is geared to readers looking for a lower price option. New verticals around opinions and cooking are also in the works, he says, and the paper is increasingly looking to new product development on mobile, where it sees consumption growing.

It has also found success with audience segments including educators and students and corporate and group sales, he notes, along with hotels offering a "digital amenity program" enabling Times access for guests during their stays, he says.

Jeff Hartley, VP of consumer revenue for Morris Publishing Group, implemented an all-access paid strategy in July 2012 and says the company is on the cusp of 10,000 digital subscribers. But he cautions that papers must give those subscribers something worth paying for.

"Ultimately it boils down to the value proposition to the consumer, and that comes back to content," Hartley says.

Brand Connections

He adds that introductory offers have been a strong driver for digital subscriptions, resulting in conversion rates in the 90% range. Pearce notes those offers work particularly well around holidays, when consumers have been conditioned to look for deals.

Adam Symson, senior VP and chief digital officer for The E.W. Scripps Co., touted his time-based meter, which allows papers to manage the amount of time that a story is free, as "a way to allow us to continue to build our brand for future generations," pulling in new readers and yet turning on the monetization on each story as it gains audience traction. Tied to the company's content management systems, the meter has proven an effective roadblock against clearing cookies or other potential workarounds by consumers.

"We're able to generate enough friction that we're seeing conversion," Symson says.

Sandy MacLeod, VP of consumer marketing and strategy for The Toronto Star, says his paper's meter, which excludes apps, gave subscribers a six-month sunset window to sign up for their digital access, while they faced a $4.99 price increase when the sunset was over.

"This is definitely a journey," MacLeod says of the model, and notes he'd be surprised if most papers stayed exactly the course on their current paid models in a year's time.

"Part of what we have to do is accept we're going to be imperfect in a number of ways," agreed Rob Mitchell, editor of The Rutland Herald in Vermont, who launched a hard paywall four years ago, a year earlier than the Times.

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