April 12, 2011 by Meghan Peters mashable.com
The recent launch of The New York Times paywall has prompted debates about the viability and fairness of paying for news online. Are publications unrealistic about subscription prices? Should the community rally to support journalism? Is it worth paying for?
But the biggest question that lingers in an everyday web reader’s mind is much simpler: “Will clicking on this link bring me to a story?”
Accessing news articles from social media, blogs and other sites has become increasingly common, making an unexpected paywall an unpleasant reader experience. Maintaining the happiness of subscribers and non-subscribers alike has fallen on the shoulders of community managers at these paywalled sites.
“Social media editors may suddenly find they can’t share their paper’s best content via Twitter without reader backlash,” says Chris Snider, a multimedia journalism instructor at Drake University. “So they will have to act more like marketers than journalists, and sell people on why they should pay for that content.”
The social media efforts of these sites differ greatly depending on what access is permitted by the paywall. Here’s a look at digital subscription models of three different publications, and how each affects its community building strategy.
The Dallas Morning News:
Dallas’ major newspaper has only seen the beginnings of its paywall’s effect on social media strategy, as the site began charging for digital access a month ago. The model allows non-subscribers to see early breaking news and blog posts, while more evergreen features and investigative pieces must be paid for.
Travis Hudson, a Dallas Morning News web editor, manages the site’s Twitter account and Facebook fan page, where he shares both free and premium content. Like any good social media strategist, transparency is key for Hudson. He designates whether a link is behind the paywall when posting it on Facebook or Twitter.
“When a premium story slips by on a social network without the premium labeling, we hear about it quickly from people irate about clicking a link and being unable to read beyond 50 words,” Hudson says.
The site’s community growth is no longer seeing the moderate upward trend it had before the premium content initiative, he adds. @dallas_news now ranks ninth in follower count of U.S. newspapers on Twitter, according to The Wrap. The site’s Facebook fan page is ranked 57th among U.S. newspapers in terms of Likes, says Snider, who tracks the Facebook growth of newspapers.
Still, Hudson says the change hasn’t been as severe as he was expecting. “It’s a struggle when I’m unable to utilize some of our best content to build and drive traffic to the masses,” he says. “But I think it can be compensated by the variety of content available for free, like our visuals, blogs, breaking news coverage and more.”
Unlike The New York Times and Dallas Morning News, international affairs magazine The Economist made changes to its paywall that increased the range of articles non-paying visitors may view. Previous pay barriers prevented visitors from accessing articles either from the latest edition, or from editions that were more than a few months old. Now readers can see a fixed number of articles across the site each week before having to subscribe. The paywall only applies to articles printed in the weekly magazine, while web-only content — such as blogs, multimedia and interactive features — remains free.
The change has been a positive one for many visitors, says Mark Johnson, The Economist‘s community editor. The community has grown on the site itself through comments and reader-focused features, such as polls, debates and live discussions. Social media helps the site reach subscribers, regular readers and new readers by the means most convenient to them, while providing an opportunity to spark discussions around The Economist‘s coverage areas.
“Readers who are empowered to participate are likely to spend more time with the site, return more often and become more active advocates of our work,” Johnson says.
With the metered model, Johnson and other web producers can share any articles on social networks without experiencing the backlash of readers’ inability to access the site. Perhaps more importantly, they’re able to bring in more traffic.
“Referrals to the site from social networks, and the pageviews generated by such referrals, have grown almost every month since our social strategy began,” Johnson says. “Nor is this growth slowing. If anything, it’s speeding up.”
Honolulu Civil Beat
Online-only local news site the Honolulu Civil Beat is coming up on the one-year anniversary of its launch. Though content is and always has been free through email, the site initially gave only partial access to visitors who came through social networks. Beginning January 2011, however, all visitors can read all articles until they visit regularly enough to be asked to become a member.
“We figured, if they’re reading us that much they would be happy to become a member, and we’d be happy to have them,” says Dan Zelikman, the Civil Beat‘s marketing and community host.
There is no specific threshold number. Rather, the site runs a custom program that asks a reader to subscribe based on how often and how much he or she reads. “Basically, if you read a couple of times a week, it will take a while before we ask you to register,” Zelikman says.
Reading access aside, the Civil Beat‘s subscription model fosters community by only allowing members to comment on articles. In addition, subscribers experience the site without advertising, a perk that’s particularly popular with the community. “They feel that we are here to serve them 100% — and they also like the banner-free site experience.”
Zelikman uses Twitter and Facebook to engage readers by accepting reader content submissions, livestreaming events and facilitating discussion.
“Social media gives us instant feedback on what resonates with our readers,” Zelikman says. “We are very happy with the warm welcome we received in our community. Since launch, new readers keep coming to the site.”
With community stewardship as a central tenet of journalism, any news site that has a paywall — or is considering one — should keep the social reading experience at the forefront of its strategy. The frustration of clicking a link that leads to inaccessible content will turn readers away, often leaving them with harsh feelings toward the site. Gradually assimilating readers to a site’s breadth of content will foster loyalty, and, in turn, build a stronger community.
Finally, Good News for Newspapers: Paywalls Are Paying Off
Published: May 02, 2012 thewrap.com
After being battered by years of plummeting earnings and deep subscriber losses, newspapers got a rare piece of good news this week.
Newspapers across the country showed modest circulation gains in the last six months according to a report by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, thanks largely to the increasing popularity of digital subscription plans.
Analysts and entrepreneurs say that the rising circulation numbers reflect a paradigm shift across the industry towards paywalls.
“2012 is going to become the year when it becomes the exception for publishers to have fully free websites,” said L. Gordon Crovitz, co-founder of Press+, a company that helps newspapers charge for content online.
Industry-wide, 20 to 25 percent of daily newspapers will have erected some form of paywall by the end of 2012, predicts Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst for Outsell and the author of “Newsonomics.”
Expect the calls to take newspapers behind a digital tollbooth to get louder, thanks to the latest circulation numbers.
The reason that the spotlight on walled or metered content is likely to intensify for legacy publications is that the New York Times, which very publicly launched its own paywall a little over a year ago, saw its daily circulation jump a massive 73.05 percent over the previous year to 1,586,757.
“I think the print guys have finally lost the war,” Edward Atorino, a media analyst with Benchmark Capital, told TheWrap. “The message from this report is digital is growing, it’s gaining share, and print is going to keep going down. These newspapers are leaving a market untapped if they’re not charging for the online product.”
Some ink-stained publications are getting the message. In its most recent quarterly earnings report, the Times said it has 454,000 paying digital subscribers spread out between its signature paper and the International Herald Tribune.
It wasn’t just the Times that saw massive gains.
As Steve Myers at Poynter noted, three of the papers with the most significant Sunday circulation gains charge for digital content. That group includes not just the Times but also the Dallas Morning News and Newsday.
The Los Angeles Times had the ignominious distinction of being in a different upper echelon. It was the only paper with a paywall that was in the top five papers in terms of circulation drops. However, the paper had yet to begin charging for digital access when the bulk of the survey was conducted.
Overall, digital circulation now accounts for 14.2 percent of newspapers’ total figures, up from 8.66 percent last year.
The rise in circulation may be partly attributable to a complicated new set of rules by the Audit Bureau of Circulations that may allow newspapers to count the same subscriber multiple times if they pay to access articles over more than one device.
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