Hitting a wall

| August 04, 2011

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 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'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."

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Befuddled and MerryHobbit: Your counter arguments that the paper is too far right and too far left indicates the newspaper is actually doing its job. I found it to be somewhere in the middle. Travel some to the north and it's a different story.

Posted by onewritesnow on 08/05/2011 at 8:37 AM

I'm in agreement with befuddled, except I feel the Missoulian pushes left-wing propaganda (as does this publication). I laughed out loud when I read that the Missoulian is following a subscription plan that the New York Times is using. The two papers are just not in the same league, however, I understand that they both have dwindling subscribers and need to make changes in order to continue employing their writers, editors, photographers and the like. This subscription plan seems fair to me with some free reading before the subscription request kicks in. People can choose to opt-in or not as they are free to subscribe to the hard copy paper or not.

Posted by MerryHobbit on 08/04/2011 at 12:25 PM

In my experience I've found the Missoulian, and Lee enterprises to be mostly comprised of conservative drivel. If the paper actually published fair and balanced stories, and practiced more in depth reporting I'm sure their subscription numbers would increase dramatically. It's true that more people are using electronic media to get their information. I personally like to keep up on local news and events. It's unfortunate that ultimately, the one media outlet most poised to do the most good for the community constantly pushes right wing conservatism off as news. It's no wonder that they're losing readers. Younger readers via electronic media, have more options and are increasingly better informed. In other words, they are less easily duped into believing the propaganda being propped up as information. If Lee Enterprises wants to increase profits they really should think about the message, not just the delivery system.

Posted by befuddled on 08/04/2011 at 8:53 AM

Part of the Missoulian's problem is how it responds to its readers. While I was editor of a small weekly in Northwest Montana, I attempted to contact Ms. Devlin several times, to no avail. These were both professional inquiries and those of a reader. That seems to have been a microcosm of the bigger picture - daily newspapers have essentially lost the connection with their readers.

Lee Enterprises, as have the other large chains, has suffered circulation drops of enormous proportions. It probably started with the giving away of the editorial product, then attempting to charge for something that used to be free. Think cable television.

I've worked for seven dailies, and all but two, the Des Moines Register and the Columbus Dispatch, are but shells of their former selves. One has even gone tabloid.

Dailies need to go back to the fundamentals as they blend in the new technologies. Returning readers' telephone calls is a good place to start.

Posted by onewritesnow on 08/04/2011 at 8:44 AM
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