In fall 2000, The Herald-Sun put an end to a lot of criticism when it became one of the last newspapers to put content on the web.
Many of those same critics are probably back, but for a different reason. Last month, it become the first in the area — and one of the few in the country — to put up a hard paywall.
Like numerous newspapers, The Herald-Sun previously used a metered paywall. It allows users to read a certain number of stories per month free, usually ranging from three to 12. The H-S allowed five, which still is the metered-wall limit at The News & Observer.
On Aug. 26, The Herald-Sun went to a seemingly impenetrable hard paywall that only allows you to see the headline and the first couple of paragraphs of stories if you don’t subscribe.
“It’s kind of a defensive strategy to help keep print circulation up some,” Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at The Poynter Institute, said of hard paywalls. “I don’t know the exact number, but they certainly are relatively rare.”
An editor at an out-of-state newspaper told me that their paper pulled down a hard paywall after only a few months because web traffic “tanked.”
There are ways to get around metered paywalls. I don’t use them to read The N&O because I have a Sunday-only subscription that includes seven-day digital access.
If you aren’t logged in to your Herald-Sun account, there appear to be no such workarounds to read Herald-Sun stories free, even if you just want to read one story or view an obituary. Anybody can get a login, but you can’t read the stories without a subscription.
“One of the issues with hard paywalls is, if it’s a really hard paywall and you have to pay right away to see an article, you’re really sort of eliminating the dynamic where people sample what you have,” Edmonds said. “You are losing the try-it, you’ll-like-it part.”
If you don’t have a digital or print subscription to The Herald-Sun, you have to pay $1 (the same as the cost for a daily print edition) for a day pass in order to read even one story. The pass does allow you to read all of the content for one day, though.
As with most big changes newspapers that are part of chains make, this one appears to have come straight from its parent company, Paxton Media Group.
The paywall change was made the day that The Herald-Sun’s website took the same look as the site launched a week or so earlier by The Sanford Herald, a fellow Paxton newspaper. Just as The N&O’s website has the same look as the other McClatchy Company websites, The Herald-Sun’s website looks the same as many other Paxton websites.
Most of the North Carolina Paxton papers have the same website design and same paywall. Paxton’s Kentucky newspapers have a different web design, but it could be because the rollout of the changeover hasn’t yet reached those newspapers.
The switchover was a hassle for loyal Herald-Sun subscribers, who had to create new usernames and passwords afterward.
In his column last Sunday, editor Bob Ashley wrote about going to a hard paywall.
“I understand part of the fault is ours — for years, most newspapers offered our content online for free,” Ashley wrote. “We thought — erroneously — that advertising revenue would pay the freight.”
He cited this November 2014 International News Media Association story. It says that 73 percent of newspapers are charging readers to access content, and that 40 percent of those newspapers have hard paywalls that “require readers to have a subscription to access most or all premium content.”
The statistics in the story factored in all newspapers in the world. The percentage of U.S. newspapers with hard paywalls likely is much lower.
“I pretty much track the bigger chains, so I don’t know the practice at small chains or individual newspapers,” Edmonds said. “But I’d be surprised if it was more than five percent or so.”
With The Herald-Sun, though, a subscription is required to read all stories, although access to all photo galleries, at least for now, doesn’t require a subscription. Ashley contends in his column that “relatively few offer the day pass option,” and Edmond says that’s accurate.
Ashley makes good points when he compares paying for newspaper content to purchasing goods.
“Providing the local coverage and content on the site costs real money,” Ashley wrote. “Our employees need to be paid — as do our vendors. I’m pretty certain folks expect to pay at the grocery or hardware store, to pay barbers and lawyers, to swipe a credit card at the gas pump or Starbucks.”
Ashley writes that the price of a day pass is about half the cost of the cheapest Starbucks drink.
The reality is that most younger readers don’t remember a day when they had to pay for most newspaper content, and aren’t as likely to pay it now. Older readers, myself included, remember when the only way that you could read newspaper stories was to buy a paper at a rack or a newsstand, subscribe or go to the library.
I’m still not happy when I feel that I am overpaying for content. But I understand the difficult financial environment newspapers face, know it has value and am willing to pay for certain content.
As a Triangle resident, I’m interested in stories in every section. Outside of the Triangle, there are no doubt many whose interests are more limited.
I’ve got think that there are plenty of out-of-town Duke, UNC and N.C. Central alums who aren’t going to be happy when they realize that they won’t be able to read The Herald-Sun’s coverage of their basketball and football teams for free. In the case of NCCU sports, The Herald-Sun is the only newspaper that consistently covers its teams.
Will they be willing to pay a dollar to read a feature, preview or game story after the headline and first couple of paragraphs pique their interest? Yes, you can read the rest of the paper as well. But what if you don’t care about that other content?
Since sports stories account for a huge amount of web traffic, the hard paywall is bound to reduce traffic substantially.
The Chicago Tribune just unveiled an alternative for sports fans who don’t care about its non-sports content: A sports-only digital subscription that costs $79 a year or $99 for two years.
The Tribune’s pay model is different than at most papers. Some stories, such as game stories, are free to anybody. More substantial stories and columns are designated as premium, and you can read only five of those a month from its home page without a subscription.
As a Chicago Cubs fan (yes, I’m getting way too excited about the postseason) who isn’t a fan of the other Chicago teams, I’m not ready to pay that for now … particularly considering that all of the Chicago Sun-Times’ Cubs content is free.
I could change my mind if every Cubs story were to have the premium designation. Another reason not to pay? When a Tribune writer posts a link on social media, you can read that story free.
“Most papers, like the New York Times, have gone to versions of the so-called metered paywalls and that allows, in theory, the best of both worlds,” Edmonds said. “You can charge the people who are going to read it regularly a monthly subscription fee to read as much as you want. But it also allows traffic to your individual articles, which is collectively quite a bit of traffic.”
He points out that the majority of traffic to stories doesn’t come from home pages, but from Google results and social-media links. Once people realize they have to pay to read those stories, non-subscribers may just stop clicking on those Herald-Sun social-media links.
The good stories written by its staff are suddenly only being read by a much more limited audience.
Digital subscriptions to The Herald-Sun are $10 for four weeks, $50 for 24 weeks and $100 for 52 weeks. The cost for print delivery (which includes digital access) is $19.35 for four weeks and $209.63 a year.
Will readers pay those prices? Will the hard paywall bring in more revenue by increasing print sales and subscriptions? Will web traffic plummet? Will businesses buy fewer online ads because of the perception that the ads will be seen by fewer people?
It will be an interesting to see how this decision plays out.