Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Journal Sentinel Bets on Harder Paywall

Making it tougher for casual readers to get access. Will that help or hurt?

By - May 9th, 2019 11:14 am
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Headquarters

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Headquarters

On Tuesday Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editor George Stanley informed readers the newspaper will make it tougher for non-subscribers to access the publication. That seemed to challenge the headline writer to find a positive spin, who came up with this: “More Journal Sentinel content will be available exclusively to subscribers in recognition of reader support.”

Stanley’s column is a tad vague on the details, and he didn’t respond to questions from Urban Milwaukee, but the move appears to be a bold strategic bet that a harder paywall will force more people to subscribe.

Noting the decline of classified and display advertising in newspapers and the dominance of Google and Facebook in grabbing online ads, Stanley writes that “we’ve never relied more on our subscribers to support the state’s largest news gathering operation.” 

The meltdown of newspapers was documented by the Pew Research Center, which found that “total weekday circulation for U.S. daily newspapers – both print and digital – fell 8% in 2016, marking the 28th consecutive year of declines… This decline put total ad revenue for the industry in 2016 at $18 billion,” about a third of the total just 10 years earlier, in 2006, when it was $49 billion.

Increasingly, newspapers are looking to circulation revenue — increases in digital subscribers — to make up for massive losses in ad revenue. But as a story by 24/7 Wall St reported: “The only paper that currently has a paid circulation model that works extremely well is The New York Times,” with 1,557,000 digital-only subscribers in 2017, and a total print and digital subscriber total of more than 2.2 million.

The Times, of course has a national audience. The Journal Sentinel ranked in 30th place that year among the top 100 newspapers, with a combined total of print and digital subscribers of 154,763. That’s impressive, considering Milwaukee ranks as the 39th largest metro area; it shows the paper continues to have higher market penetration than many newspapers.

For years most newspapers offered free website access, only to realize this was a mistake. The Times created what became a popular solution: a metered paywall that cut off readers after they had clicked on a certain number of stories per month and informed them they need to subscribe to see more. 

The consumer psychology underlying this was far from ideal, as writer Bob Howard of Quartz noted: “Take a moment to consider the emotions you feel every time you hit one of these barriers. You start to engage with an interesting story, then you’re slapped with a pop-up…. A strange mix of indignity and disgust washes over you. And most of the time, you click away…You don’t need an MBA to realize that it’s less than ideal for your customers to feel disgusted by you immediately before you ask them for money.”

So how has that approach worked for the Journal Sentinel? On the one hand Stanley suggests it’s a success: “our paid digital subscriptions have grown by 170% in the last two years,” he writes. 

But if that’s so, why the radical change? Stanley says “a significant portion of our reporting will be available only to subscribers” and “will be labeled ‘For Subscribers’ on JSOnline and our mobile apps.”

This sounds like a pretty hard paywall, which most papers have avoided. A Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) analysis in September 2017 found that of the nation’s top 25 newspapers, 10 offered free access for readers, and most of the rest offered a “leaky paywall”, often putting up a barrier after so many stories were viewed.

The grand exception had been the Wall Street Journal, which always had a very hard paywall, but in 2016 began to offer some limited opportunities to sneak into content.

The other exception, CJR noted, was the Boston Globe, which created a hard paywall in Spring 2017, the toughest of the 25 papers analyzed: “Non-subscribers get two metered articles per month, and that’s it,” the story noted. 

Stanley points to the Globe and the Minneapolis Star Tribune as two models of regional papers that are “sustaining their newsrooms despite the decline in advertising revenue by building the next generation of subscribers around their digital and mobile sites.” 

But the Star Tribune hasn’t had a hard paywall, though it began to “test restricted access to certain content to registered visitors” last year, as Digiday reports.  The paper’s growth in digital subscriptions was done not through restricting access but by “targeting different kinds of readers on Facebook, giving registered readers a lighter ad experience and increasing its service journalism,” the story notes. 

And while now has a hard paywall, it also operates a second free website, Boston,com, which “has a separate newsroom covering similar topics, but more in a lifestyle, things-to-do, community-focused way,” as Peter Doucette, the Globe’s Chief Consumer Revenue Officer, told CJR. 

The Journal Sentinel may be seeking to accomplish this dual approach with one website, where some content is free, and thereby keeps traffic flowing in, but exclusive news and sports stories are only accessible for subscribers.  

But the idea of restricting access to the best scoops is contrary to the core mission of journalists. As Howard note, there’s always a temptation to say “There’s a hurricane — take down the paywall. We’ve got an exclusive! Damn the paywall.”

“The paywall is inherently in conflict with journalism’s primary goal: to educate and inform the public about important issues. When the papers say, ‘this is so important that we’re making it free,’ they’re simultaneously saying that all the other stuff they publish doesn’t really matter, so they’ll charge you for it. It’s hard to imagine a business philosophy that’s more upside-down.” 

But two days ago, little more than a year after Howard wrote these ringing words, his publication, Quartz, announced it would adopt this upside-down approach by creating a metered paywall.

The reality is that every publication is struggling with this issue and only the nation’s foremost newspaper, the NYT, has come even close to solving the problem. There are no easy answers. 

As for the gains in digital subscribers seen at the Globe and Star Tribune, Editor and Publisher magazine offered this take: “It’s no coincidence both newspapers have wealthy, local owners that have stabilized the business in order to provide a path to their digital future. Both newspapers also boast robust newsrooms, and have largely avoided the large cuts many competitors have been forced to endure. Just as in print, it takes quality and unique content to sell digital subscriptions, and newspapers more than ever need to stand out from their competitors.

The Journal Sentinel, by contrast, is one cog in a company, Gannett, that owns more than 100 daily newspapers and 1,000 weeklies and has trimmed the news staff of every publication it’s purchased, including its daily in Milwaukee. 

That said, it’s a good sign that the JS is trying to learn from some of the more successful regional newspapers. But it’s less encouraging that Stanley’s cryptic explanation to readers may leave them wondering how exactly this new policy will work. Readers need to trust your publication, and they can’t do that if you are not fully transparent with them.

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Categories: Murphy's Law

2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Journal Sentinel Bets on Harder Paywall”

  1. Alan Bartelme says:

    I would have paid for a digital subscription for the old JSOnline website, but the new Gannett version is terrible and has such little local coverage I would be throwing my money away.

  2. kmurphy724 says:

    I read Mr Stanley’s article and was a little surprised at the use of the term “subcriber” to refer exclusively to “online subscribers,” as if paper subscribers are not also paying customers of the product. As a long time consumer of both the print edition and the online edition, we reluctantly will be ending the print subscription, given it apparently will have less content. Unfortunately the online experience remains cumbersome and I hope this improves. Maybe they should hire Urban Milwaukee to run their online news site? 🙂

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