My hometown newspaper and former employer, the News & Record, is introducing a paywall. Ever since Warren Buffett bought the paper, we knew it was coming. I don’t like it. I think it encourages people to avoid the paper — print and digital — altogether, and I hate that many editors are reduced to shilling for something most don’t actually believe benefits the public. (To his credit, Jeff is pretty direct in his message to readers.)
The surprising thing to me – and which I believe is unusual for newspaper paywalls – is that the N&R is charging more for a digital subscription than for a print subscription.
Currently, a 7-day, 52-week subscription costs $187.12. According to an ad in the newspaper today, the digital subscription is $215.40. (FYI, the subscription page on the website hasn’t been updated, at least that I can find.)
In comparison, the News & Observer charges $390 for a year’s print subscription, and only $69.95 for a digital subscription. The Star News in Wilmington charges $218.40 for the print edition, and $131.40 for a digital subscription.
But the N&R is cutting the other way. Editor/Publisher Jeff Gauger explains: “The reason for that variance? A print subscription permits us to subsidize the cost of content by providing access to your home or business for preprinted advertising circulars. A digital-only subscription lacks that advertising subsidy.”
Put aside the idea that many of us might pay not to get the preprints. The newspaper must weigh the costs of non-delivery against the potential loss of preprint revenue. Sending people to a website costs much less than delivering a newspaper to homes. No paper cost, no delivery cost, less production cost. But preprint advertisers pay for delivery to a certain number of homes. They don’t know how many people look at the ads vs. those who pull them from the paper and send them straight to the recycle bin. The advertiser can judge the effectiveness of the ads by the number of people who buy its product.
Here’s the thing: People who subscribe to the print paper, as I do, get digital access free. That means that it’s cheaper to get the paper and digital, than just to get digital.
Is the pricing structured to encourage digital users to subscribe to the paper? After all, the more subscribers a paper has, the more it can charge advertisers. (Despite what many readers think, advertising pays the bulk of the cost of a newspaper, not subscription fees.) I doubt this is the actual intent, but it does make some perverse sense to the consumer. Unless you can get what you need from the website from its 20 free articles per month.
None of this changes my mind that paywalls are a short-term fix and, without valuable new content, a long-term failure. But it will be interesting to watch.
Update: After mentioning this on Twitter, several people chimed in to say their local papers charge more for digital than print. Several also said it makes sense to try to drive people back to print, even if they don’t want it. Me, I get why they’re doing it; I just don’t think it’ll work.
So, charging more for the web to encourage people to subscribe to the paper even though they don’t want the paper is a viable strategy? I’m not convinced. Imagine this: A person dropped the newspaper subscription because he could read what he wanted from the paper’s website. Now, he can subscribe to the newspaper again to read the paper AND the website…it’ll just cost him nearly $200. My bet is that he’s going to read his 20 free articles and go elsewhere. Or maybe that’s just what I’ve done at every newspaper where I’ve hit a paywall.