The theory behind a paywall for a small-market, local newspaper

Early in my internship with Serra Media, I’ve  had the opportunity to work with journalists and managers in the new media field. It’s been enjoyable learning about different strategies and reasons behind newspaper’s decisions. This post was written for Serra Media’s blog and focuses on one of the newspaper’s that run a hyperlocal Newsgarden site, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.

A little more than a year ago, the main newspaper for the Walla Walla Valley in Washington state, the Union-Bulletin, considered a major change in its website design. A controversial part of that redesign involved creating a paywall — giving full access to stories only if you were a paying subscriber.

But for a small-market newspaper, the decision might be the right one.

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin“We were looking for a way to increase online revenue and at the same time decrease the drop in circulation,” said Carlos Virgen, the Union-Bulletin’s online services manager. “Our attempts at increasing online revenue solely through advertising have been very slow. And as a small operation, we felt we’d be in a position to switch strategies if we discovered that the payment system wasn’t working.”

The Union-Bulletin, which publishes six days a week and has a circulation around 16,000, doesn’t look like it will change its online revenue strategy any time soon. Virgen said that the paper was in discussions with publishers at Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Lewiston Tribune and the Post Register about implementing a payment plan.

The site’s redesign coincided with implementing a paywall.

“As far as I know, we did not hear any concerns from local business regarding our change in strategy,” Virgen said about business relationships with the paper. “In fact, due to our payment and registration system, we now have some updated demographic information that we can share with advertisers. And the new site layout adds considerable value to some of our ads.”

That’s good news for businesses, but finding an audience that is willing to pay — even at roughly half the price of a print subscription — for online content. Still, the Union-Bulletin hasn’t seen much backfire from the paywall.

“It has affected our traffic less than I expected,” Virgen said. “Compared to the same time last year, we have seen some drop overall, but I think our traffic last year was a bit inflated because of some extreme winter weather that the area experienced.”

Virgen also noted recent success in that the Union-Bulletin has matched year’s traffic over the last few days, something “that bodes well for us.”

And after roughly a year, Virgen, who’s been with the Union-Bulletin since September 2006, said that he “would cautiously say it has been a success.”

“We had an idea on what to expect for online-only and overall registered users based on data from some of the newspapers we consulted with,” he said. “And the negative feedback from the community has been minimal.”

Part of the positive feedback from Union-Bulletin readers comes as a result of the coverage that no other publication is doing in the Valley. Virgen said that the “big newspaper,” the Tri-City Herald, occasionally reports on the Walla Walla community, but the Union-Bulletin
provides daily and more in-depth coverage.

“We definitely feel that there is no one reporting on the Walla Walla Valley as well or as comprehensively as we are,” Virgen said. “Whereas the Tri-City Herald often files stories based on press releases or on U-B stories, we actually have reporters out in the community, which I think makes a big difference in the minds of our readers. So, we felt that the community greatly values our journalism and would find the nominal fee acceptable.”

But with the increasing presence of citizen journalism and new media strategies such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook, the Union-Bulletin is monitoring and working to improve its online reporting. It recently launched Serra Media’s Newsgarden platform as another weapon in the fight for audience.

“I am aware that there is more coverage of the community outside of what we do,” Virgen said. “More so than when I first started, so it is definitely something I keep my on.”

The Union-Bulletin still offers free content on their website like blogs, video and special features. For more information on the newspaper’s relaunch, visit the Union-Bulletin’s website.

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1 Comment

Filed under Communication, Journalism, Media, Newspapers, Personal, Publishing, Social Media

One response to “The theory behind a paywall for a small-market, local newspaper

  1. Thanks Jay. There are a few comments over at the Serra blog including some numbers which I provided to quantify our “success.”

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