Others at the Morning News noticed that traffic to the website had grown as print subscription rates rose. Why pay more for print, some readers seem to have reasoned, when you can get the same news free online? “We found when we raised the price of the paper, a lot of people migrated to dallasnews.com,” says executive editor Bob Mong.
The News launched an aggressive pricing scheme for its digital content in February 2011. People who don’t subscribe to the paper must pay $16.95 a month to get access to the web, iPad, and iPhone versions of the Morning News. Print subscribers already paying $33.95 a month get unlimited access to any digital edition.
It is a paywall, but not an absolute one. Stories that strike the editors as “commodity” journalism—such as breaking news, or weather and traffic updates that could easily be found elsewhere—are free to all. More proprietary or exclusive journalism requires a subscription. (Currently, about half of the stories on the site’s home page have open access.)
When Moroney announced the pay plan, he and his staff were predicting that page views would drop by 40 to 50 percent. “I’m not confident we’re going to succeed,” he told Nieman Journalism Lab. “But we’ve got to try something.” In an interview a few weeks before the paywall launched, he portrayed the strategy as a way to help return journalism to one of its former, and highly profitable, roles as a one-stop storehouse of local news. “At least for a period of time, you can restore the bundle,” he said.
In late April 2011, six weeks after the pay plan launched, the News did see traffic declines—though less, so far, than Moroney had predicted. Unique visitors were down 17 percent, and page views declined 28 percent, compared to the same period in 2010. Mark Medici, director of audience development for the News, declined to disclose how many new digital subscribers had signed up, but did say that 27 percent of print subscribers had enrolled for digital access.
Traffic declines were also on the minds of Miami Herald executives when they debated whether to institute a pay plan.
The Herald did a survey on its site in October 2009 to determine users’ willingness to pay for its content. It was a voluntary and thus unscientific poll; nevertheless, the results didn’t inspire a great deal of confidence. Fifteen percent said they’d pay for unlimited access; an additional 23 percent said “maybe.” The dollar amounts weren’t meaningful, though; less than 5 percent said they would spend more than $10 a month.
Another survey question asked readers if they would make a “voluntary financial payment” to support the Herald’s site. Nearly a third said they were very or somewhat likely to do so, and so a few weeks later, the Herald’s site instituted a “tip jar,” attaching this plea to many pages on the site: “If you value The Miami Herald’s local news reporting and investigations, but prefer the convenience of the Internet, please consider a voluntary payment for the Web news that matters to you.” Says Armando Boniche, the Herald’s circulation director: “We got about $1,000 to $2,000 total. McClatchy [the Herald’s parent company] had us pull it after six weeks.”
Meanwhile, the Herald increased print subscription prices, though not to the extent that Dallas did, and stopped discounting the paper in Broward County, just north of its home market. And the Herald made a few smaller price-enhancing moves, such as charging fifty cents a week for an insert with TV listings and $1 extra for the ad-filled Thanksgiving Day newspaper. (Still, old habits die hard. In January 2011, the Herald was offering six months of seven-day delivery for just seventy-seven cents a week—a whopping 83 percent discount from its stated price.)
The Herald also did some paywall calculations, modifying formulas provided by the Newspaper Association of America. In 2009, when the study was prepared, miamiherald.com was attracting around 3.88 million unique visitors and
25.2 million page views a month. Its advertising mix was typical of many news organizations of its size. The Herald’s own ad department sold 42 percent of the total space available on the site, at prices averaging slightly over $13 per 1,000 views. An additional 36 percent of the available advertising space on the site was sold as “remnant”—very cheap—ads, under $1 CPMs. And 22 percent of the ad inventory on the site went unsold altogether.