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The Boston Globe tightens up as executives seek ‘the optimal balance’ between free and paid

Want to share Globe stories on Twitter? Your readers will hit a paywall after just two clicks a month.

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The flexible paywall that The Boston Globe introduced for its subscription website about a year and a half ago has slowly gotten a little less flexible. Fewer Globe stories are available on the paper’s free Boston.com site, and restrictions have been placed on social sharing.

The reason, according to Globe spokeswoman Ellen Clegg, is that the paper’s executives are still trying to figure out how to get paid online journalism right in a world awash in free news.

“The core of our two-brand strategy,” she told me by email, “involves trying to find the optimal balance between a free, ad-supported model and a premium, consumer-supported model.”

The restrictions were brought home to me recently when I learned that the paper had started limiting social media sharing to only two free links a month — a serious limit on someone like me, who regularly shares links on my blog, on Facebook and on Twitter. As a subscriber, I can share as many links as I like, of course. But non-subscribers can only click on two before getting a message that they cannot pass go.

So let’s run down the changes, shall we?

First, those social-media links. Clegg says that when BostonGlobe.com went live in the fall of 2011, social sharing was limited to five links per month. If so, it wasn’t well publicized. I’ve gone back and looked at some of the coverage, including my own for the Lab and the Globe’s own FAQ, and can find no mention of a monthly cap.

In any case, Clegg says that in December 2012, that number was cut to two links a month from search and social media — “per device, and per browser.” In other words, eight a month if you want to juggle among Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer (but who wants to do that?), and more if you move back and forth among other screens. “Email sharing,” she adds, “is unlimited.”

Second, when BostonGlobe.com debuted, the editors selected five stories a day that would also run on the free Boston.com site. Most sports stories ran on Boston.com as well. Last April, the number of free news stories was cut from five to four, and some additional sports content was moved behind the paywall.

“This is part of an effort to continually experiment, test and analyze how our readers engage with us digitally,” Clegg says. “We have been trying to find the right balance between the free-sharing culture of the Internet and paid access to premium Globe content. We believe that we can only arrive at that balance through experimentation.”

How well is it working? The Globe’s digital subscription base has risen, but slowly. Currently, Clegg says, the Globe has about 50,000 paid digital subscribers — but that doesn’t mean 50,000 people paying directly for a digital subscription. It’s a figure that includes digital-only subscribers; Sunday-only print subscribers (I’m one of them), who automatically get seven-day digital access; and seven-day print subscribers who access BostonGlobe.com at least once a week.

That’s how digital subscriptions are counted by the Alliance for Audited Media (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations), and it’s a pretty expansive definition. As I’ve written before, about half of those counted as Globe digital subscribers get the paper delivered to their doorstep all seven days.

So is the decision by Globe executives to tighten the paywall smart or dumb? It’s hard to say. From the beginning, the idea behind the paid BostonGlobe.com site was to find a way to get regular readers to pay without turning away occasional readers and without hurting the free, advertiser-supported (and just-redesigned) Boston.com site. (Here is how Globe publisher Christopher Mayer explained it to me shortly after plans to build the paywall were announced in the fall of 2010.) Today, Clegg says, Boston.com attracts about 6 million unique visitors a month. Another 1.5 million uniques a month visit BostonGlobe.com, mainly as a result of the site’s free-access features.

I know that since I learned about the two-links-per-month limit, I’ve been looking for the equivalent content in Boston.com’s news blogs or elsewhere. I tend to shy away from BostonHerald.com unless I’m writing specifically about the Herald, since much of its content moves into the paper’s paid archives after two weeks. But there are plenty of other sources of free local news, even if it’s not always of the same quality as the Globe’s.

I’m inclined to cut the Globe some slack as Mayer, editor Brian McGrory and company grope their way into the future. But the new rules have already nudged me away from Globe content, and I’m a paying customer. That can’t be a good thing.

Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on Beat the Press, a weekly media program on WGBH-TV Boston. His blog, Media Nation, is online at www.dankennedy.net. His book on the New Haven Independent and other community news sites, The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age, will be published by University of Massachusetts Press in May.

Photo by Scott LaPierre used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • didaniel

    I’m a freelance writer/former staffer who has been writing for the Globe for years. I see both sides. Free content has hurt my industry, but now I can’t send links of stories to people in them from afar (I write a lot of travel) or put them on my website as examples of my content. There are ways around that — I could reprint text or use PDF, but I long for more access! Who knows how all this will flesh out in the end.

  • bbmm18

    I am active on LinkedIn–and occasionally share pertinent Globe articles. Recently I have wanted to share more of them since there are some good articles for my main group with domestic members and a wide international membership as well. Many others I know who would gain from reading good articles on particular subjects. I too am a Sunday subscriber at this point. I was the kid who cut out newspaper articles and brought them to school the next day! So I was disappointed the other day when I tried to share a link with a grad student in the Midwest. Not sure if he ended up paying or found it from another source but thanked me for telling him about it since it was pertinent to his work and research and he did end up reading it.

    I agree that we need monetary support for journalism–just odd that with this model we can’t share the paper or articles with others outside the area. Perhaps there should be some type of exchange where if you are a subscriber/member in good standing you can share links from a consortium of news orgs per week or month or quarter as part of your subscription. Say you get a few included in the price, then maybe you go monthly or quarterly allowing a certain amt of share per a price point. If you exceed your amount they charge x per share–such as phone minutes and a higher price for unlimited or have categories–such as educational for someone like Dan or J courses or a current events teacher and have special rates for the educational institution or something like that.Diane should be able to share links to her articles. Just brainstorming here. The Globe has been a leader with online content and services so hopefully they will figure it out soon. We also have to get used to paywalls. It took me a year or so to get used to a $1.00 Globe when I wanted one off the newsstand. But that is for the whole paper. –BMM

  • http://twitter.com/tmcenroe Ted McEnroe

    I understand and support the need for the paid product, but it does seem like the Globe runs the risk of reducing its influence in the region as it tightens up the wall. If fewer and fewer people can see the news, then fewer will be likely to talk about it. Over time, those that have lived without the Globe for longer and longer periods of time will be less and less likely to feel the need to subscribe.

    And for someone like me, if I know that I’m sharing links that are less likely to be read, I’ll stop sharing. (I have noticed that I share fewer and fewer items from the Globe these days.) After all, if someone clicks on a link I shared with them, particularly in a work context, and they can’t see the link, the negative blowback isn’t just on the Globe for having a tight paywall, it’s on me a bit as well, because I have shared links that don’t actually contribute to the conversation.

    I wonder if there is a two-tier sharing strategy that could work. Pay $X and you can get the paper, bostonglobe.com, etc., but your links are subject to limits Pay $2X and you can share more freely.

    Pay $X and you get behind the wall. Pay $2X and you get a window.