The Columbia Tribune‘s General Manager Andy Waters spoke last night in the Reynolds Journalism Institute about thedecision to take the Trib‘s website behind a paywall. We were there, furiously live blogging the whole time, but this is a nice wrap-up to make sense of the chaos of the live blog.
So, how’s the wall working for the Columbia Tribune? So far, really well, and way better than expected.
The Columbia Tribune went behind the pay wall on Dec. 1, 2010, and Waters came to RJI to basically give a progress update on how the paywall is working for them.
The Trib began looking at an online subscription in early 2009, shortly after its last website redesign. At the time, online revenue accounted for less than 15 percent of total revenue, an appallingly small number for an increasingly digital world. Waters said they knew they needed a change, and quickly latched onto the idea of a metered model.
The Trib‘s paywall isn’t a hard wall like the colorful illustration above suggests; it’s actually quite porous. Here’s how it works: The first 10 page views each month for each visitor are free. After that, if you want to read local content such as sports or news, you have to pay up. Lots of content like blog posts and the home page are still free, but the most valuable content for a local audience is behind the wall.
It’s not cheap, but an online-only subscription to the Columbia Tribune is less expensive than the dead tree edition. Online only is $99 per year, $8 a month or $5 for the day. Or you can buy a single article for less than a dollar.
Since the new metered system was implemented, its web traffic has taken a hit. Waters wouldn’t tell me the specifics when I asked him about it after his presentation, but the Maneater reports that the Columbia Tribune‘s website has seen a 25 percent drop in the last three months.
Not surprisingly, the number of people who visit the Missourian‘s website has noticeably increased in that time, according to Quantcast, though not quite as dramatically.
Waters wouldn’t give exact figures about how many online-only subscribers have signed up or how much additional revenue the online subscriptions have generated, but he did say it was “enough to pay for two to three reporters.” If we use this chart as a guide, that’s around $80,000. That’s really good after just three months!
The Trib only allows online subscribers to comment on news stories, which has dramatically cut down on the number of comments. “Before, about 250 comments were removed each month. That has dropped to about 20 each month, a big bonus for the web editors.” That’s not always a bad thing, as Waters pointed out.
I’ve seen lots of models for how to draw money out of stingy web users, and the metered model seems like the way to go. It allows fly-by users who only visit the Trib‘s site once or twice a month to still see that content and leave, while adding a page view and (more importantly) a unique visitor to the Trib‘s count.
The metered model really targets the Trib addicts, the people who love the Columbia Tribune‘s content so much they are on the site several times a day every day. There’s a pretty good chance those people will pay to keep reading and commenting on Columbia Tribune content online.
I can see the metered model being used for most newspaper websites in the near future, but not for the websites of local TV affiliates or lean online-only operations like J-School Buzz.
It’s a good rule of thumb that the local paper in any given town has more reporters on its staff than the three major TV networks in town. The newspapers have always been expected to do the heavy lifting when it comes to reporting news, and online ads that sell for less than a dollar per thousand page views aren’t going to do the trick. To sustain those large newsrooms is going to require that the users most addicted to those websites pay up while the fly-bys freeload a little.
I’m not saying the Missourian will ever go behind the paywall, but don’t expect the Trib‘s wall to come down any time soon.