Opinion: Newspaper websites can succeed with paywalls

Ryan Spoehr, Copy Editor

In February, Madison.com instituted a paywall on its site, including the Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times. But is this an effective and essential measure? Yes, it is.

Shoveling content onto a web site for free while putting the same information in a broadsheet is not sustainable. Newspapers need to bring in revenue to keep their business going, keep equipment running and to pay its workers. Do you walk into a supermarket and take a steak from the meat section without paying? No you don’t, or at least I hope you don’t. That’s not ethical and certainly isn’t legal. That money for that steak and everything else helps pay employees and helps keep that store running. Why should journalism be any different?

Of course, when you walk into a supermarket, stores offer samples periodically. Hyvee does it. That is essentially what a paywall is. For example, the State Journal and New York Times give readers 20 free views to sample content from their web site before having to pay a monthly subscription fee. Papers need to look at that model and see how that can benefit their organization.

Can it work?

The answer is yes. Look at Gannett, the organization that owns USA Today and many newspapers nationwide, including 10 in Wisconsin.

In the fourth quarter of 2012, Gannett reported that about two-thirds of their new digital-only subscriptions were new overall subscribers. That likely means that having the ability to read stories from a laptop, tablet or mobile device helped bring in new readers.

Aren’t papers losing money though? Is it too little too late?

Yes, there is some money lost, but it is mainly with print advertising.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the New York Times gained 74,000 new net subscribers in the fourth quarter of last year, which brought their online subscription total to 640,000, 64 percent more than they had a year prior. That was the largest increase in any quarter since they instituted their paywall in 2011.

The overall increase in online subscribers in 2012 helped the Times with a $90 million increase in circulation, up 13 percent from 2011. While total ads were down $44 million, the rise in circulation helped the Times’ overall revenue rise by 2.6 percent.