While the Dallas Morning News logged 50,000 subscribers, it’s unclear how many of those are mere up-sells from print subscribers (hardly counting, then, as online-only revenue and loyal digital subscribers). The paper also saw monthly pageviews drop by 9 million. Consequently, digital revenue was down 11 percent to $7.8 million. The paper’s parent company, Belo, reported a net loss in the first quarter of $3.9 million. Meanwhile, the newspaper is spending $4 million a year to promote online subscriptions.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal has traded a 30-percent drop in traffic for 1,600 people willing to pony up $9.99 a month for digital access. The good news is Sunday subscriptions are up by 1,000 since the paywall was erected. Editor Chris Peck said online revenue is not down, despite the drop in traffic. It’s been years since I worked for Scripps, the Commercial Appeal’s parent company, but if it still relies heavily on bundled classified ad revenue, which it then counts as online revenue, a change in website traffic would not affect revenue. As a company, Scripps continues to report flat or declining revenue in just about every category.
The Columbia Tribune has seen a 25-percent drop in traffic, a decline in engagement, and watched some traffic shift to a different, still-free local news source, all for a meager $80,000 in subscription revenue. And this from a paper that had achieved an impressive 15 percent of its revenue from digital prior to putting up the paywall.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is often cited—as Simon did in our discussion—as a model for newspaper publishers. The fact is, whatever strength the paper had in circulation, it isn’t clear that charging for online content was the reason. Unlike many newspapers in the country, owner Walter Hussman kept subscription prices low in order to buoy circulation numbers. Unfortunately for the paywall stalwarts, Hussman was forced recently to double newsstand prices for the paper to help offset declining advertising revenue. This is not the action of a healthy newspaper company.
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.
We also don’t know what percentage of digital subscribers (bundles or not) are older readers. Newspapers need a strategy that works with a younger audience, and if young readers are buying digital subscriptions at a low rate, the paid online model can hardly be said to represent the future of quality journalism.
Meanwhile, a stat that should alarm publishers and paywall advocates is the low, low conversion rate of unique visitors to paid subscribers. Here are stats provided by Ken Doctor: “The New York Times broke the 1-percent barrier last year, 390,000 subs compared to 33 million U.S. unique visitors. The Commercial Appeal is at .8 percent; The Star Tribune is at .25 percent with its four-month initiative. The Columbia Tribune is at .2 percent.”
There is just no clear evidence so far to indicate that paywalls—even for the most successful general-circulation paper, The New York Times—are doing anything to help stop the bleeding. Newspapers continue to pile up losses while putting their hope in a savior that shows no evidence of being able to work miracles.
Metered paywalls—the fad paywall of the moment—set a limit on the number of stories (10 or 20) one person using one browser on one computer can access in a month. Typically, coming to an article from a third-party link, such as a tweet, Facebook status update, Google News search, or blog post, does not count against your monthly quota.
Following the @nytimes account on Twitter, as 5.2 million people do, is just one way to avoid the paywall. Another route: Use multiple browsers. Since the metered paywall is cookie-based, and each browser keeps its own cookies, every time you access a metered site from a different browser, the quota counter resets to zero. If you install Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Opera on your Mac, for example, you’ve upped your New York Times quota to 50 stories a month.