Several news sites have implemented paywalls in the past year, and the trend continues into 2012. The Los Angeles Times launched its paywall on Monday, and Gannett recently announced that all of its papers except for USA Today will be behind a paywall by the end of the year.
As more news sites consider subscription plans, they’ll inevitably face tough questions — not just about how to implement paywalls but about how and whether paywalls will affect their social media goals.
I talked with folks from five different news organizations to find out how they’ve balanced serving subscribers and non-subscribers on social networks. They each have different ideas and strategies, suggesting there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
The range of approaches
When it comes to social media and paywalls, there are two extremes — making exceptions for people who come to stories via social networking sites, and making no exceptions. And then there are the more nuanced approaches that lie somewhere in between.
The Los Angeles Times isn’t making exceptions for readers who click through to stories from social media. All readers will be given free access to 15 articles per every 30 days — regardless of whether they came to them via social media, search or latimes.com. After that, they’ll be asked to choose from a few different subscription packages.
“Members can click through to an unlimited number of articles” on social networking sites, said Nancy Sullivan, the Los Angeles Times’ vice president for communications. “For non-members, each click-through will count toward the article maximum. Also, if a non-member reader chooses to revisit a story within the 30-day window from their first visit to latimes.com, it will not count towards the limit.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is The New York Times, which gives full access to anyone who comes to a story via social media, even if the person is over their 20-article limit for the month.
“Our digital subscriptions were designed to allow a generous amount of content to be free through various methods, including the website, apps and links from third-party sites like social media,” The New York Times’ Eileen Murphy told me. “We did this because it was critical to us that we remain open to all and an integral part of the expanding social Web.”
One of the main arguments against paywalls is the fear that traffic and advertising revenues will fall because people won’t want to pay for content. As The New York Times’ paywall and others’ have shown, though, traffic doesn’t tend to decline much. Some news sites have seen initial dips, but then traffic typically bounces back.
Giving access to readers via social media is one way of helping to retain your site’s traffic. And it’s a way to keep from frustrating non-subscribers who click on links in social media posts, only to find that the story is behind a paywall. This can be especially frustrating during breaking news situations, when users want to access stories that will quickly inform them.
Serving both subscribers and non-subscribers
The Wall Street Journal handles its social media efforts differently from The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Ashley Huston, vice president of corporate communications, said the Journal typically tweets and posts links to free stories rather than linking to stories that are behind a paywall.
Figuring out how to serve both subscribers and non-subscribers on social networks poses an interesting dilemma for journalists. On the one hand, you may not want to tweet or post links to stories that non-subscribers can’t read. But if you want to serve your loyal subscribers as much as possible, then why not tweet and post links to all stories, for their benefit?
Sites that have less porous paywalls have fewer options. If they want to grow their audience on social networks, they can’t simply push out links to stories that are behind paywalls. They have to try to continue building their social media presence and give non-subscribers a reason to follow their updates — and perhaps eventually subscribe.
The Tallahassee Democrat, which was one of the three early Gannett papers to introduce a paywall, regularly tweets links to stories that are behind a paywall. But the Democrat also tweets links to Facebook posts that give news summaries, and to Facebook photos with informative captions. This may disappoint subscribers who think they’re being taken to an actual story, but at the same time it enables non-subscribers to find out more about the news and comment on it.
A better workaround would be to continue posting updates on Facebook, but also tweet updates directly from Twitter so they appear in your followers’ Twitter streams. (If the 140-character limit seems restrictive, you can consider breaking your tweets into mini narratives.)
Bob Gabordi, executive editor of The Tallahassee Democrat, said Gannett did not ask the paper to change its social media strategy after the paywall went up.
“Gannett has asked me to innovate, to try new things, to experiment in reaching audiences in new ways and develop relationships with readers and viewers, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do,” Gabordi said via email. “Social media should not be used to drive traffic, but to engage readers and alert them to what we have. That might result in driving traffic – but it is a different approach than simply linking.”
(I reached out to some higher-ups at Gannett to find out how paywalls will affect social media efforts at the company’s other papers, but they wouldn’t comment.)
Informing readers without giving away all your content
It makes sense for news sites — particularly those with paywalls — to use social media in a variety of ways rather than simply posting links. Sure, using social media is a great way to generate traffic to your site. But it also offers opportunities to inform and engage people, give them reasons to care about your content, and show them that you care.
Caroline Titus, editor of the Ferndale Enterprise, took advantage of these opportunities while tweeting about the California earthquake in 2010. The Ferndale Enterprise doesn’t publish its content online, so Titus couldn’t link to any stories. Instead, she tweeted frequent updates about the quake to keep her audience informed. Now she regularly uses Twitter to show that the paper cares about issues affecting the community.
“I try to tweet from school board meetings, city council meetings etc., just to let my followers know we are everywhere in the community, all the time,” she said via email, noting that she doesn’t want to give away her paper’s content. “I want to drive people to subscribe, to buy single copies while using social media to maintain our position as the voice of the community.”
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette doesn’t want to give all of its content away either. The paper, which instituted a paywall in 2002, charges online readers to access original and exclusive stories that appeared in print. When posting links on social networking sites, the paper only tweets to its free content, which includes breaking news, video, blogs, photos, databases, transcripts and more. The paper has a six-person staff dedicated solely to producing content for the Web.
Conan Gallaty, online director of the Democrat-Gazette, said the goal is to provide different content for the paper’s print and online readers. Simply putting all of the paper’s content online for free doesn’t give readers much incentive to want to pay for the print product, Gallaty said. At the same time, posting links to content that non-subscribers can’t access seems too limiting.
“Requiring subscriptions to read newspaper articles is the defensive side of our strategy. We use it to retain as much print circulation as possible so we can drive as much readership and ad revenue as we can,” Gallaty said by phone. “On the offensive side, we create and distribute as much free information as possible. We engage our readers heavily on social networks, but we only engage them with our free content.”
News sites have a lot of options when deciding how their paywalls and social media efforts interact. It helps to keep both subscribers and non-subscribers in mind and to be transparent with them about whatever strategy you decide on. Developing a strong social media presence is one of the best ways to make your newsroom more accessible and to generate interest in your content. And if your readers like what they see, they might just decide to pay for it.