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Feb. 28, 2012, 1:12 p.m.
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From Salinas to Burlington: Can an army of paywalls big and small buoy Gannett?

The company’s digital subscription plan allows flexibility in price and access by market, but is it enough to help the overall health of the chain?

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Gannett is mounting the biggest campaign yet to make readers pay for journalism online. And the newspaper company’s size means its success or failure could ripple throughout the marketplace.

By the end of the year Gannett plans to launch digital subscriptions for almost all of its newspapers, a kind of unified paywall that would operate on the web, mobile and tablets and cover 80 of the company’s news sites, with the exception of national flagship USA Today.

For newspapers it may signal a turning point, since readers are now looking around the marketplace and finding fewer free papers. That doesn’t mean a change in the amount of free news (aggregation and sharing remain rampant), but it could have an effect on people’s perception, or even willingness, to pay for news. It’s like looking around for cheap gas in your neighborhood: If all the stations list unleaded at $3.85, you’re more likely to believe $3.85 is the going rate for fuel.

Until now there has been no paywall rollout of this scale for U.S. newspapers, with most digital subscription plans emerging piecemeal at places like The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, and The Boston Globe. The Gannett plan reaches readers across 30 states (and Guam!). In other words, the number of paywalls in the United States will jump dramatically, as well as the number of people exposed to them.

Gannett is pushing a total digital transformation, not just a paid content strategy.

Like all paywalls, the success of Gannett’s plan largely hinges on people’s willingness to pay for news online. (That, and how easy it is to pay. More on that in a bit.) The company is betting readers will pony up, projecting at least $100 million from the new subscription program by next year.

The paywall should be easily scalable, since Gannett likes to take advantage of consolidating resources within the newspaper group. The paywall mechanics and back end will be the same for all 80 papers, but details about pricing and metered access get decided on the local level. Gannett’s papers run the gamut of small to big, and no two communities are alike when accounting for factors like Internet use and penetration of mobile devices. That’s likely why the company began testing digital subscriptions at select papers in St. Cloud, Minn., Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Lafayette, Ind., among others.

If Gannett has any data about its paywall experiments, it’s keeping it quiet. (The company has, however, been preparing employees to answer questions about the change.) Since the paywall test sites were announced in 2010, no numbers have been released on subscribers or circulation revenues. So what have they learned? Here’s what a Gannett spokesperson told me via email:

On the previous pilots, we learned a lot about consumer engagement and willingness to pay for unique local content from our experiments in Greenville, Tallahassee and St. George. This new model builds on that, responding to consumer demand to have the news and information they value available on whatever platform they choose. Obviously, we feel those early tests were successful or we wouldn’t be building a new subscription model around those learnings. However, we are not going to discuss confidential business data at this time.

Gannett is pushing a total digital transformation, not just a paid content strategy. There will be dozens of tablet and phone apps, which, aside from color schemes and branding, will likely look and work similar across the 80 properties. Again, Gannett’s size is a boon for small and mid-sized papers, as the company can bring them to market faster than the individual papers could have alone. As tablet usage continues to grow, apps or other digital access can incentivize digital subscriptions.

There is some evidence that paywalls for small and mid-sized newspapers can succeed, or at least shore up circulation and not be a drag on revenues. At the same time, in some cities a paywall has boosted circulation of the Sunday paper in particular (the “Frank Rich Discount”). Newspapers in Memphis and Minneapolis have seen bumps in the Sunday circulation, but for others that increase has yet to fully materialize.

For each community it comes down to how a digital subscription plan is executed, said Ken Doctor, a media analyst and the Lab’s resident expert in Newsonomics. Specifically, he said, it’s a question of how to charge readers, existing versus new, or whether to offer a print discount versus an additional charge for web access.

“What Gannett is saying is, ‘We think we can bump revenues by 10 percent from essentially being flat.'”

For other publishers the decision is simple: Increase subscription prices across the board and promote the value of bundled access to mobile, tablet and desktop. Taking all of that into consideration, and Gannett’s $100 million calculation, doesn’t seem impossible. “What Gannett is saying is, ‘We think we can bump revenues by 10 percent from essentially being flat’,” Doctor said.

Hitting that target is easy when you factor in the conversion of existing print subscribers to digital subscribers. The challenge for most local and regional papers with paywalls is bringing in new readers, who are getting their news elsewhere. And most people signing up for digital subscriptions are older readers, he said. “I haven’t heard of any regional paper that produces substantial digital only customer numbers and revenue numbers,” Doctor said. These are problems that point to whether paywalls can have long term success for locally focused journalism.

Since each site has the ability to determine the pricing for its subscription plan, there will undoubtedly be tension between what individual markets will bare and what the mothership needs to improve its bottom line. For Gannett, one paper’s success with digital subscriptions can be another paper’s failure. The fate of Gannett’s plan rests in whether the Sioux Falls Argus Leaders of the world offset the likes of The Indianapolis Star or Cincinnati Enquirer.

Image by Darwin Bell used under a Creative Commons license

POSTED     Feb. 28, 2012, 1:12 p.m.
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