Newsday Paywall Is Barely Affecting Local Traffic

The news that Newsday has signed up just thirty-five online subscribers since it put its Web site behind a paywall caused a little splash the other day. We said don’t make too much of it since the paper has one-of-a-kind circumstances and didn’t set out to make money from subscriptions.

A new internal Newsday memo we got has some actual data showing the paywall has hardly cut into the paper’s core audience at all:

Consistent with our strategy, the performance measure to focus on (nowhere else reported) is the change in unique visitors compared year over year in the New York metro area (our target audience): after a website redesign, platform change, gate implementation, and Google’s flagging the site as “subscription,” our reported visitors in the New York metro area declined by a remarkably low 2 percent: from 657,000 in December 2008 to 643,000 in December 2009. And while we are encouraged at the minimal loss after all those changes, we are committed to winning those unique visitors back and growing from there.

I have argued
that the press needs to focus on its loyal readers instead of the junk traffic from random Google searches and one-off Digg links—and also that newspapers need to quit giving their product away for free online, which incentivizes their high-revenue customers to become low-to-no-revenue ones.

This is what Newsday is doing here. “Visitors in the New York metro area” are whom Newsday’s Long Island advertisers want to target. They couldn’t care less about somebody in L.A. who accidentally pops in for thirty seconds.

So, at least for now, talk from anti-paywallites about “the traffic Newsday is turning away… creating opportunities for local bloggers and niche sites” is just that.

Still, I think Newsday ought to tweak its model. That junk traffic from outside New York is still worth something, even if it’s a fraction of the value of its loyal home-base readership.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.