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July 7, 2021, 3:15 p.m.

USA Today is getting a paywall. Who’s the audience for it?

The marketplace for online news has thus far rewarded (a) premium quality and (b) local connection. USA Today’s digital subscription offering seems likely, in its current form at least, to fall between those two stools.

It was all the way back in 1996 — Whitewater! Bob Dole! a new cable channel called Fox News! — when The Wall Street Journal put up its first online paywall. It was a lonely bet at the time, with most newspapers still offering their news online for free. But as a business newspaper, the Journal was about as well-positioned as a paper could be to get readers (or, more likely, their employers) ponying up.

It was 15 years (and one false start) later when The New York Times followed suit with its own paywall. As a general-interest paper, the Times’ decision was not considered a slam dunk; there was still a ton of free competition online. But the Times is the Times, and its pitch that you pay for quality has worked magnificently in the decade since.

It was 2013 when The Washington Post launched its paywall. The Post had its own set of questions, with a still-dominant print position in the D.C. area, a huge audience in government, and what had historically been a less national outlook than the Times. But it worked out too — though it’s a question for alternate-universe theorists how it would have done if Jeff Bezos hadn’t bought the place two months later.

The last national newspaper with its articles still flapping free in the wind was USA Today, which made sense given its history and market positioning. Its decades of circulation success always rested on something other than paying readers; instead, it was bulk purchases by hotels and other places with lobbies that fueled the business. While its quality has ebbed and flowed over the years, USA Today’s pitch in a digital environment has always been tougher than what the other nationals could offer.

But today, USA Today has officially joined the paywall party. Here’s publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth and editor Nicole Carroll:

Much of the content on USA TODAY will still be free. But you’ll find a selection of stories each day marked “subscriber only.” These will be exclusive investigations, sophisticated visual explainers, thought-provoking takes on the news and immersive storytelling.

This is a big change; our digital news has always been free. But USA TODAY was founded on boldness. Your subscription is an investment in quality journalism that’s worth paying for, journalism that strengthens our communities and our nation.

…here’s the bottom line: We are partners in this democracy. Together, we’ll hold the powerful accountable. Together, we’ll look out for the less fortunate, the marginalized. We will lean on each other for solutions that make our lives easier, better. We’ll grow together when we understand perspectives different than our own, when we meet and hear from people outside our social media bubbles.

We are proud to tell the diverse, rich story of the USA, every day. We thank you for supporting this important work.

Gannett, USA Today’s owner, telegraphed this move back in April, with what seemed like a $4.99/month price point — half of the roughly $10/month that’s become standard for local dailies (and much lower than the undiscounted prices for the Times or Journal). But now that price seems to have gone up to $4.99…for the first three months, $9.99 thereafter. You can get the Post for that price (undiscounted), so the value on offer is harder to see. Either way, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of testing around discount offers as Gannett tries to maximize digital circ revenue. For $3/month more, you can get rid of ads on USAToday.com, which are significantly more annoying and aggressive than those of their peer national dailies.

The edge USA Today has here is the hundreds of local newspapers in the Gannett lineup, for which USA Today is an umbrella brand and quasi-wire service. For example, today’s edition of my Gannett hometown daily, The (Lafayette, La.) Daily Advertiser, today includes 8 stories (including briefs) by Advertiser reporters, 14 from AP, 3 from USA Today, and 5 from other Gannett newspapers.

Personally, I would have argued for a tie-up between local and USA Today subs. People’s attachment to their local daily is far stronger than to the paper they used to read at the airport La Quinta, and local digital subs are the single most important factor in Gannett’s future success or failure. Make access to USA Today an incentive for local subscribers — “Subscribe to The Advertiser and get USA Today’s great coverage from across the nation for free!” — and you might be able to reduce churn and make it harder for readers looking to cut their monthly subscription bills. But Gannett sees it differently:

I subscribe to one of Gannett’s local newspapers. Can I access premium content on USA TODAY?

Right now, USA TODAY and local premium content subscriptions are mutually exclusive. However, there is often USA TODAY content within the local digital reading experience. That will not change and could include some of USA TODAY’s premium content.

(A Gannett exec left room in an interview “for Gannett to offer subscriptions that bundle USA Today and a local newspaper” at some future point.)

Without that local tie-in, and with a higher-than-expected price, I’m honestly not sure who the audience for a USA Today digital subscription is. That’s especially true if, as it seems, an awful lot of content will still be in front of the paywall. (“Much content remains unrestricted and accessible across all platforms. Premium content will be clearly marked ‘Subscriber only’ and will include the day’s very best articles, videos and enhanced programming to help you best understand the news guided by USA TODAY reporters and experts.”)

In the print days, USA Today had a very clear value proposition: Your hometown daily is terrible. Or, more likely: You’re not in your hometown and you want to read some national news — not local news from a place that’s not local to you. Online, it had a less distinctive but nonetheless cogent one: We’re free, unlike those other guys. And our vibe isn’t as East-Coast-elite, either. As a paid product, though, it’s now part of a giant content muddle. If you’ve decided you’re willing to pay for online news, why would you pick USA Today over the Post or Times — or over your local daily?

That’s not to denigrate the quality of the journalism being done at Gannett; my (admittedly limited) perception is that the chain has managed to pull off local-national integration better than I’d expected and used its chain-wide scale to increase its journalistic ambitions. It’s just a reflection of the marketplace for online news, which has thus far rewarded (a) premium quality and (b) local connection. USA Today’s offering seems likely, in its current form at least, to fall between those two stools.

Photo of a USA Today box by Amber Henley used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 7, 2021, 3:15 p.m.
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