This just isn’t true, and Owens cherry picks some numbers to make paywalls look bad. The Dallas Morning News has 49,000 subscribers? Owens says those don’t really count because they’re probably just print subscribers adding digital. He then says the Morning News’s digital revenue declined 11 percent in the first quarter. That’s not true. That’s the number for its parent company as a whole, and it owns three other dailies. A.H. Belo didn’t break out the papers’ individual ad results. Moreover, Owens doesn’t mention that that companywide decline was mostly caused by some bad comps from a year ago. Here’s Belo:
Excluding the impact of a discontinuation of a revenue allocation to digital and the Super Bowl, digital revenue was flat in the first quarter of 2012 compared to the prior year period.
Even if Owens’s numbers were right and all 49,000 of the Morning News’s digital subscribers are print upsells paying $1.85 a month, the paywall would still be well in the black. Getting print subscribers used to paying for digital access, whether it’s two bucks a month or ten, is a key advantage for newspapers who will need to eventually convert significant portions of their print circulation over to digital.
He also says this:
The Minneapolis Star Tribune has 300,000 print subscribers and is charging a modest $1.99 a week (much less than Simon’s proposed $10 per month for the Sun) and has only 20,000 online subscribers (“only” being relative to our previous points about what’s required to sustain the kind of journalism Simon expects paywalls to sustain). Since the paper is now held by private equity, earnings reports are hard to come by.
While some of the raw numbers attributed to early adopters of paywalls might seem impressive, there are two things not being fully disclosed by publishers: the percentage of bundled packages with primarily print-minded subscribers and the churn rate for digital subscriptions. The higher the churn rate, the slower growth publishers will see over time and the higher the cost of customer acquisition.
The Strib’s paywall got those 20,000 subscribers in less than six months. Roughly half of those subscribers are new digital-only readers, who pay $2 a week for access, Strib publisher Michael Klingensmith tells me in an email. Another 25 percent were existing Sunday-only subscribers who now pay $1 a week to access the website. And the final 25 percent are the best yet: new digital subscribers who added a subscription to the Sunday paper—by far the most lucrative edition for newspapers. There’s been virtually no churn: 95 percent have stayed on past the intro pricing period.
So we can back into some numbers here. That means the paper has already gotten a new annual revenue stream of about $1.6 million in digital subscriptions. Adding in the new Sunday print circulation revenue brings it to well over $2 million a year (and it’s worth noting, helped keep Sunday print circ flat from a year ago).
This, of course, is hardly enough money to return to the salad days of newspapers, which will never return. But this incremental revenue stream is still new and it’s still fast-growing. It’s unclear where it could end up in three or five or ten years. Even if it stopped growing tomorrow, it’s money that Owens & Co. would have newspapers leave on the table for no apparent reason.
The anti-paywallites tend to make a big conceptual error in not accounting for the fact that large websites almost never sell their ad inventory out. So if you put up a paywall and pageviews fall by even 25 percent, your digital ad revenue will decline by much less than that, since remnant ads pay so poorly.
“The ratio of new digital consumer revenue to lost digital ad revenue is at least 20 to 1,” says Klingensmith of the Strib’s experience.
Unsurprisingly, he says, “I am intensely ‘pro-meter.’”
4. “Paywalls are too easy to defeat on the open Web and the technology is costly.”