Thursday, December 12, 2013

Press Releases: Invisible Paywall

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Lewiston Sun Journal’s online paywall launched last week, and nobody really noticed. It’s a new experiment in both structure and sales-pitch for converting formerly non-paying web readers into customers with open wallets.
Many papers around the country (as big as the New York Times and as small as theEllsworth American) have variations on paywalls, and more are likely coming; the Press Herald’s parent company has said it’s planning one too. As on many sites, Sun Journal readers don’t have to have pay to see every story. That’s good because many of the stories occupying front-page real estate on are freely available elsewhere online, from their actual sources: the Bangor Daily News and the Associated Press.
But the stuff that is behind the paywall bears headlines like this one Monday: “Lewiston Councilors-Elect to Meet Tuesday.” If you think that headline is bad, you haven’t read the 218-word snoozer by Scott Taylor. It’s unclear why anyone would pay to read a tiny daily-news brief.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to. While it is marked with a key icon to show that it’s a “premium article,” non-subscribers can read 10 such stories every 30 days. After that, it costs as little as $2.99 per week.
That doesn’t sound like a bad deal, and it actually isn’t when you factor in the Sun Journal’s creative assembly of a larger package. The weekly newspapers the Sun Journal owns have been pillars in their communities, bolstering the daily; six of those (theNorway Advertiser Democrat, the Bethel Citizen, the Franklin Journal, the Livermore Falls Advertiser, the Rumford Falls Times, and the Rangeley Highlander) are included in the paywall (though not the Forecaster papers, which still have a free site).
In fact, it’s downright cheap: Unlimited online-only access to all the papers costs $2.99 a week. If you want online access only to the Sun Journal, that costs $4.59 a week — which includes your choice of print delivery (every day, weekend, or Sunday-only) as well. The full-price $4.99 a week only comes into play if you want full online access to all the papers, plus Sun Journal delivery, plus one weekly print publication.
Cleverly, there’s no way to get just the weekly papers — nor even just one weekly — as part of an online package. Showing additional attention to detail, a number of the stories on the SJ front page link to weeklies’ stories; someone with the SJ-only deal will quickly get frustrated trying to click through, and will likely up their subscription by 40 cents a week.
The benefit of that is a boost not to the numbers of the SJ’s circulation, which may be in the low 20,000s, and certainly is no higher than 31,000, according to recent self-reported statistics. Rather, it boosts the circulation of the weeklies by giving people access to all six for less than the price of any one. That strengthens the smaller papers’ appeal to advertisers, unless they see through this numbers game.
Speaking of which, there’s a numbers game being played on the public too. The Sun Journal is calling this paywall “membership.” In a November 10 note to readers explaining the upcoming change, executive editor Rex Rhoades spent a good amount of space extolling its virtues and benefits, the first and most prominent of which is financial: “most subscribers will join a membership program offering extra discounts and benefits that will more than cover the cost of your subscription.”
Specifically, subscribers will be entered in monthly drawings for free tickets to various local events: “Portland Sea Dogs, Portland Pirates, Oxford Plains [Speedway], local arts shows, hot air balloon rides, golf, ski, concerts and more” says the online description. They’ll also get “exclusive coupon deals . . . offered by local businesses on a weekly basis.” In boldface comes the real pitch: “The total value of the deals offered . . . will exceed the cost of your membership package.”
Which is the final experiment. The Sun Journal is asking its readers to pay to get the news, and then promising them they’ll get their money back in savings that are only available to paying customers. The quality of those deals — and the frequency with which people actually take them — will determine whether this marketing pitch works.