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March 18, 2015, 2:17 p.m.
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How The Irish Times developed its new (very relaxed) metered paywall

“We could’ve cut our way out of existence in a very orderly way over the next 10 years. But strategically, we saw the need to invest in digital.”

— On February 23, The Irish Times erected a metered paywall on its website, making it the first major daily Irish newspaper to do so.

In the United States, newspaper paywalls are familiar [pick one: annoyances, understandable business choices] by now. But they’re new to Ireland, which has led the Times to ease readers in with what by American standards is a very loose paywall: 10 articles allowed per week online, and 20 per week in its app.

(The New York Times did something similar when it launched its paywall in 2011 — initially allowing 20 articles a month, then cutting back to 10. It’s not uncommon for papers today to set the cutoff at 5 a month.)

Why such a loose paywall? In planning, The Irish Times turned to its newly created analytics team, which was studying reader behavior. It found it could divide its readership into three groups: those who read fewer than five articles per week, those who read between five and ten, and readers who consume more than 10 articles. They studied how other publications set their paywall limits; they surveyed readers on how they’d respond to a metered paywall and asked its most frequent readers — those it thought would be most likely to subscribe — about pricing.

The team determined that the optimum number of articles for its paywall — the level where it could monetize its most frequent readers while not losing too many casual readers in a competitive environment — was 9 articles per week. Nine’s a weird number, so it rounded up to 10.

“It was a call between managing the traffic outcomes, alongside trying to build the subscription or revenue base around it,” Jim Miley, the Times’ business-to-consumer director. “Ultimately there was a call made on that, which we did, and let’s hope we got it right. We know that we probably haven’t gotten it totally right; ultimately these things are movable and one changes depending on circumstance.”

The lowest level digital subscription starts at at €12 ($12.78 US) per month. The priciest option is €50 ($53.26) per month for full digital access and six-day home delivery of the print paper.

The Irish Times has changed its approach to paying for digital content before. From 2002 to 2008, the paper charged for online content, which it was publishing online at Ireland.com. When it integrated its print and digital newsrooms and moved its web presence to IrishTimes.com, it decided to take down its wall. (The Times did introduce paid access to its online crossword puzzles and digital archive; both of those services are now included in the price of a digital subscription.)

The paywall has been in the works for more than a year, as the Times has revamped its processes toward a more digital focus, creating that analytics team and building a new infrastructure to focus on digital marketing and customer relations. The Irish Times has invested about €2 million ($2.12 million U.S.) over the past 18 months to implement the changes, and has also added 35 staffers in mostly digital areas on both the editorial and business sides of the operation.

The paper’s goal is to add 20,000 new subscribers through the four tiers of digital-only and digital-and-print subscription packages. The Times wouldn’t tell me how many subscribers have signed up thus far, but Irish Times managing director Liam Kavanagh said they’re “well ahead of where we thought we’d be at this stage.”

In 2014, before the implementation of the paywall, The Irish Times had an average daily readership of 410,000 between its print and online editions, according to Ireland’s Joint National Readership Survey. However, in the second half of 2014, the Times’ print circulation fell 6.3 percent compared to the year prior, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported. The paper has a print circulation of more than 76,000.

The paper expects to see its online readership drop with the implementation of the paywall — and as with all paywalls, people were scheming to get around it as soon as it went up — but executives are hopeful that efforts to boost its online metabolism will keep readers and attract new subscribers.

“It’s going to be a long sell — it’s not flicking a switch and seeing how it goes,” Irish Times editor Kevin O’Sullivan told me in an interview at the paper’s Dublin office. “Particularly with the metered approach, we are very conscious that you have to enrich your content. You have to make IrishTimes.com increasingly attractive in a subscriber relationship.”

To do that, The Times has taken a number of basic steps to optimize its digital output. Its daily 10:30 a.m. editorial meeting is now online-focused, and it will do more publish stories online to match peaks in traffic to its website and not solely on the print production schedule.

The Times only prints Monday through Saturday, and historically its digital output has slowed down on the weekends when it’s not printing. Now it has a Sunday newsletter that includes features and more narrative stories meant to be leisurely Sunday reads.

“We work on a seven-day-week basis instead of having this old print mentality of a wind down on a Saturday. That doesn’t happen any more,” O’Sullivan said. “Actually, our targets for weekend expansion were the ones we met first when we changed to a seven-day scenario, which is quite interesting. We are then tailoring our content to our peaks during the day for different audiences, and increasingly in terms of technology and how our content is consumed. So, Twitter is more significant in the early morning and app use is very strong early morning as well, as there’s a very significant commuting population.”

Building an analytics team

Executives at the paper sought advice from about 20 different publications throughout Europe and North America that have already put up paywalls, from The New York Times and the Financial Times to Norway’s Aftenbladet. Creating a centralized analytics team was one result of that research. The Times wanted to understand how frequently readers were coming to the Times and what types of stories they were reading.

“That kind of shaped…how we drove some of the changes around product, and the investment that we were putting into resources to support key areas,” Kavanagh said. “We have focused a lot of our resources around business, politics, and sport, for example, to try and grow them because that’s where were getting our heaviest engagement.”

Looking at other news organizations also identified other areas where it needed improvement. The vast majority of its circulation is through sales at newsstands — it has a small number of home delivery customers and in 2014 had 2,951 subscribers to its e-edition — so the Times needed to overhaul its customer service procedures to handle an expected influx of digital subscriptions, said Miley. The paper also realized it needed to invest more in marketing to attract readers to its new offerings.

The paper has multiple backend systems for news delivery, payments processing, and a data marketing engine. But the Times doesn’t yet have a single comprehensive customer relations management system, and Miley said the paper has looked at the Financial Times, the Telegraph, and other news outlets as examples of publications that have created better systems. “It’s really about finding that single view of the customer, and we have some more work to do around that,” Miley said.

Looking abroad?

For now, The Irish Times’ paywall is intentionally porous, and some of its most popular content is being left outside the wall, like the sports podcast Second Captains, which receives about 170,000 downloads a month. Still, the Times said it would remain flexible on the paywall’s rules as it gets more information about subscription rates and reader habits.

One of the areas where The Irish Times is considering expanding is internationally. One-fifth of its web traffic now comes from outside Ireland; the Times already runs Generation Emigration, a section on its site aimed at Irish expats.

It’s estimated that there are 70 million people in the Irish diaspora, and more than 240,000 Irish people have left the country since the onset of the economic crisis.

The paper certainly sees the expat community as a potential opportunity for growth, but it acknowledges that it will take time to determine how or if to pursue that audience.

“If you’re in Boston, are you willing to pay an annual subscription of $150 to The Irish Times? Maybe, maybe not,” said Kavanagh. “The idea that we can find you in the first instance is a bit of a challenge as well.

Regardless, though the launch of the Times’ paywall came at the end of a lengthy process, it’s viewing these investments and changes as the start of its continued development into a digital-first organization.

“We could’ve cut our way out of existence in a very orderly way over the next 10 years,” O’Sullivan said. “But strategically, we saw the need to invest in digital.”

Photo by Jorge Montero Tapia used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 18, 2015, 2:17 p.m.
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