Lee Newspapers' declining revenues have led to layoffs, consolidated newsrooms, and thinner newspapers. Now the company is betting that charging its most loyal online readers will stop some of the bleeding.
On Monday, Missoulian Editor Sherry Devlin announced the paper's new metered payment system. Visitors to Missoulian.com can read 20 news stories per month for free and then will be asked to subscribe. Print subscribers will pay $2 per month for full online access; non-subscribers will have to pay $5 per month. All of Lee's papers in Montana and Wyoming are shifting to the metered paywall. Each has different rates and story-click thresholds.
"I think this is a really positive development for the industry as a whole and for our newspaper specifically," Devlin says. "I think it's important to show that our content has value. There really is no other media in Montana that hires and employs the number of journalists that we do, and we take our responsibility to our community really seriously, providing that excellence and depth and breadth of coverage. This is part of doing that—to be able to hire those people and pay those people and make those investments in the technology as well."
Devlin says reaction to the new approach has been "very mixed." The dozens of comments on her Missoulian story announcing the move suggest that many readers are perturbed—"It's been nice knowing you" and "Good luck with that" were among the responses.
Lee follows several other newspapers in implementing a metered paywall system, most notably The New York Times. It did so in late March, and as of July 21, when it released its second-quarter earnings, the media company had amassed 224,000 digital-only subscribers. It charges $15 per month.
Devlin says she expects Missoulian.com's traffic to initially dip, and then ultimately exceed its current online readership. "Paid readers are really committed readers and they're going to read a lot," she says. "We'll find out all of that over the course of the next six months or so here."
Clay Shirky, a New York University journalism professor who writes about the social and economic effects of internet technologies, is also waiting to see if the metered model will prove profitable. He says it avoids the disadvantages of full-on paywalls, which shrink an audience to only the subset willing to pay, "but it still relies on plumping up revenue from bundling with print, so it may be a stopgap rather than a solution."