Hey, Local Paid-Content Models Can Work!


newspaper_small.jpgADOTAS – On Twitter, media commentator Jeff Jarvis quipped, “[You’d] Have to pay me to read my local Gannett rag.” However, Gannett, which operates 81 regional newspapers in addition to USA Today, may be onto something as it experiments with paid content models on three of its local newspaper websites.

For one thing, Gannet isn’t messing with blanket paywalls like Newsday — a regional news source for Long Island, NY — erected in October 2009. Newsday’s online site witnessed a stunning drop in unique visitors over the paywall’s first three months in action while digital-only subscriptions numbered a total of 35. In December, Newsday parent Cablevision dropped the paywall for a month, but now it’s back up.

News Corp. witnessed similar failings with its paywall experiments in the U.K., while The New York Times keeps pushing back the launch date of its pay meter.

However, Bloomberg reports: “Gannett’s newspaper in Greenville, South Carolina, has started charging readers $7.95 a year to access content devoted to Clemson University sports. Those subscribers view 40 to 70 pages per visit, compared with 6 to 8 pages on Gannett’s free websites….”

Mah goodness, it appears Gannett did its homework… As I have some relatives in Greenville, SC, I know from experience that Clemson fans are crazy — similar to the locals around many big sports universities. The demand is there, which was not the case for Newsday and isn’t the case for most regional newspapers.

Also, this isn’t the whole paper — it’s just Clemson sports.

I’m sure there are tons of blogs and upstart online pubs about Clemson University sports teams, but diehard fans — and many of them — will pay for a local newspaper’s coverage if it has credential. Remember when we were talking about credential last week? Not only is it important for online content, readers definitely won’t pay for content unless it has a high level of credential.

Despite credential, most local content does not have the demand to warrant a subscription, a truth that has existed for a long time. Growing up outside DC, our family received tons of free community newspapers, and their production was paid for solely by advertising (at least until the well went dry as the web filled up). I recall reading them when I was desperate for something to fill the boredom of my teen years, but I’m just a bad community member.

The logic behind regional regional paywalls and pay meters is that these outlets have content no one else does — the old limited supply game. But what if no one cares? Or rather, not enough people care — what if there’s no readership? If there’s no demand, it doesn’t matter how much supply there is.

Then there is AOL’s local news service Patch, which just added Outside.in to its assets and is now under the provision of digital content svengali Arianna Huffington. This will only increase the supply… Of stuff a limited audience care about. A friend was telling me last night he did a few assignments for Patch but had trouble writing them because they were boring. They weren’t newsworthy — “Write about this bar!” “Well, it has alcohol… There are stools too.”

If they were to dull to write, can you imagine how boring the content would be for most people to read?

So you’ve got an oversupply of resources for content in low demand. How the hell is a subscription model going to be an effective revenue stream?

Local online subscription models need a specific set of circumstances to work — specification, credential and demand — and very few content outlets fit the description while even fewer have the ability to work a subscription model at scale. With 81 regional papers under its belt, Gannett is likely to find a few more content outlets (or divisions of content outlets) that it can charge consumers to read.

But tradition is not dead — for at least the last hundred years, media sources have been primarily supported by advertising. Subscriptions will only be a stream that a minority of publishers will able to use. They are not the answer to the journalism industry’s woes.

Targeted digital advertising is.


  1. Great points, publications (traditional or not) are just going to have to get used to the idea that they can’t charge subscribers a large blanket fee for bundled content from one pub.

    Gannett is one of the players with enough properties to experiment with segmented paywalls, it’ll be interesting to see if they try this…i.e. offer subscriptions to “college basketball” across their various sites. I think people are more interested in segmented content than they are loyal to their favorite publication.


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