BostonGlobe.com introduces metered paywall, allowing in casual and new readers

Web readers now get access to ten articles per month before running into the paywall

Akong the metro newspapers around the U.S., The Boston Globe has been one of the most experimental in its approach to digital publishing. Even when still owned by The New York Times Co, The Globe had ventured into eBook publishing, launched a somewhat improved iPad edition, and was experimenting with a new website for its paper, BostonGlobe.com.

That new site launched behind a paywall, while the paper also maintained a free website at Boston.com. Yesterday the paper announced that it would convert its hard paywall into a metered paywall, allowing casual readers to have access to ten articles per month before bumping up against the paywall.

BG-websites-lg“We’re making this change so occasional readers can sample more of our news, features, opinions, and investigative journalism, free of charge. We hope these readers will find that the Globe is an essential part of their day, and become subscribers,” said Pete Doucette, vice president of consumer sales and marketing in the company’s announcement.

“Our shift to the metered model is part of our effort to continually experiment, test, and analyze how our readers engage with us digitally. We want to find the right balance between sharing on social media and paid subscription access to premium Globe content, and we believe that we can only arrive at that balance through experimentation.”

The paper did not give any numbers for its digital subscriptions, and for good reason, the way newspapers are counting digital subscriptions can be confusing. Because the AAM allows a paper to claim a reader as a digital subscriber if they have paid and given the paper its name and email address, a paper can claim that reader in its audit even if the reader is also a paid subscriber to the print paper. In other words, newspapers are now allowed, if they play the game right, to double count readers.

A better number, provided by the Globe in September, may be 45,971 (yesterday’s staff memo says “nearly 60,000) – these are digital-only subscribers who have signed up via the website or the paper’s apps. For a paper with just over 250,000 in weekday circulation, this is a pretty good percentage of readership that is now digital.

So why turn the website into a metered site? I think it has to do with both advertising and editorial. At 45 to 60 thousand readers, advertisers are not getting much penetration of the market. If you were a local business, would the new BostonGlobe.com be a good choice for their ad dollars, when there are clearly better alternatives. For the newsroom, it must have been frustrating that they found their work being read by fewer readers online than if their work might appear on Boston.com.

Brian McGrory, the editor of the Globe, hinted at this newsroom reason for the change in his memo to the staff.

“This is a huge event that means this enterprise has doubled down on the work of the newsroom. We are betting that the more people get to sample our journalism – to read our stories, to view our photography and videography, to experience our graphics – the more likely they’ll be to subscribe to the full body of our work,” McGrory wrote. “We’ve replaced the paywall with a meter that allows readers ten free stories in a 30-day period. After that, they’ll be challenged to pull out their credit card and pony up. In truth, the paywall was successful, measured in the nearly 60,000 digital-only subscribers to bostonglobe.com. But the universal belief is that we can bring even more paying readers to the site with a meter.”

The paper has experimented with paywalls, dual websites, and apps, now it intends to move to phase two, if you will. Taking what it has learned, or think it has learned, and tweaking their approach. The first thing that needs to happen is to differentiate Boston.com from BostonGlobe.com and make both websites successful. To do this, it appears that the paper intends to break off Boston.com into a website that can function on its own, without content from the newspaper.

“The intention over the next many weeks is to move all Globe-originated content – staff blogs, chats, videos, and more – to bg.com, where it can be widely read by a larger audience not hindered by a paywall. This will allow bg.com to reflect the full, vibrant, lively personality of this entire room,” McGrory wrote to the staff.

“At the same time, boston.com will remain a news site at its core, but with a sharper voice that better captures the sensibilities of Boston. We’ll have a few openings on boston.com that we’re looking to fill with more content originators (forgive the parlance), and we’re encouraging all producers to create as well as aggregate more vibrant content. As part of the separation, we’ll relocate the entire boston.com enterprise in the media lab, all producers and editors, in a move that is targeted for next week. The redesigned boston.com will launch on mobile late this month and on desktop in early April.”

I remain highly skeptical of paywalls for mid-sized metro newspapers, though less-so of metered paywalls. The best examples of success in locking content behind paywalls comes from financial and B2B websites that offer highly valuable business information. The NYT, which is often pointed to as a successful model, has lost way too much advertising revenue over the past decade to be called a success. One might say that the NYT has driven the wolf from the door by setting the house on fire.

The Globe’s latest move, they say, is part of its efforts to experiment. I think that is definitely the right approach. But I would have like to have heard from Jason Kissell, vice president, advertising in some form. If the ad team is not at the center of the new strategy then the newsroom is just fiddling around.

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