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Aug. 8, 2011, 8 p.m.

The Onion’s CTO: Our paywall experiment is just that

America’s Finest News Source wants to know whether people will pay for fake news.

When word got out about The Onion testing a paid content model overseas, Gawker declared the beginning of the end: “It only affects dirty foreigners at the moment, but everyone knows damn well that these things always presage a domestic rollout. So get ready to pay for The Onion….”

But not so fast, says Michael Greer, the Onion’s chief technology officer. “By ‘test,’ we sincerely mean it. We want to know how people respond and act,” he said. “We’re not rushing.” The Onion, ever like a real news organization, is dipping its toe in the water and experimenting with paid content.

The Onion’s metered model is like that of The New York Times: Only hardcore fans are asked to pay. After reading five articles in 30 days, users are prompted to subscribe for $2.95 a month or $29.95 a year. The homepage and inside sections remain free, and the vast majority of Onion’s readers — the thousands of people who share funny headlines with their friends — “will never even notice,” Greer said.

Greer thinks America’s Finest News Source has something else in common with the Times: Few competitors can match the quality of The Onion’s journalistic satire, so readers might be more likely to pay for it. “I don’t think everybody can act this way, but it’s true. We think our content is very valuable and unique,” he said. “We have a great relationship with our fans, too, so they value us.” (He points to this recent poll of New Yorkers, who were more willing to pay for The Onion than water or sex.)

It seems Americans are willing to pay for fake news on other platforms, too. Readers on the Kindle and Nook pay $2.49 a month for a digital subscription. At Amazon’s Kindle Store, The Onion is ranked No. 5 in Newspapers (behind the Washington Post, in front of the International Herald Tribune). It’s No. 4 on Barnes & Noble’s Nook store (and beats out the Post).

The pay model is being tested in every country but the United States — except, that is, in places where Americans troops are engaged in combat, Greer said. (Apparently The Onion is huge with service members: “They send us pictures of themselves in Onion t-shirts with machine guns — that’s a big fan base for us. We didn’t want to test with them,” he said.) Greer acknowledges the overseas experiment is not apples-to-apples when it comes to American audiences — famously loathe to paying for news on the web — but it has to start somewhere.

He said there is no when, or even an if, for an American rollout, and the monthly article limit could change during testing. Although the experiment is only a few days old, Greer said the feedback has been mostly positive and “a lot” of people have signed up.

One group that’s exempted from the sign-up, though: members of The A.V. Club, The Onion’s pop-culture community site. In fact, The Onion has had to tamp down discontent among the Club’s members: Earlier today, in fact, its news editor, Sean O’Neal, came out and assured A.V. Club members that their slice of The Onion isn’t affected by the pay meter.

And that’s because, Greer said, the A.V. Club audience is different from The Onion’s overall audience in a significant way: It’s not just a collective of people who like good content but a community of people who like good content. Its members “are much more focused on talking to each other,” Greer noted. And “they don’t want to be charged for their belonging to that community — whereas I think they would feel differently about being charged for content that’s being provided to them. It’s a very different thing.”

POSTED     Aug. 8, 2011, 8 p.m.
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