The New Haven Register has joined the quest for readers willing to pay for online news — and added a twist.
The daily print paper has erected a “paywall” requiring people to access articles on its website. It is following in the path of legacy news organizations across the country trying to figure out how to continue paying for reporters to cover news as the internet ravages paid advertising and most readers switch from print-paper to online reading.
That quest will center largely on convincing readers to pay for news. The outstanding question is how best to do that.
The paywall version unveiled by the Register’s corporate parent, Hearst Media, works differently from those offered by most news organizations, ranging from the Hartford Courant to The New York Times. Those sites offer readers up to, say, five free articles a month, then require a paid subscription to access any more. After an initial discount offering, subscribers pay $9.99 a month.
The Hearst version, by contrast, keeps wire service stories, press release summaries, and short breaking news pieces free. Then it groups all other local reported stories in a pay-only “NHR Insider” section that includes stories from others southern Connecticut dailies in the chain (in Bridgeport, Norwalk, Stamford, Greenwich, and Danbury) as well as regional group-written investigative pieces, columns, and state sports and Capitol coverage.
Hearst’s regional vice president for news and digital content, Matt DeRienzo, said in an interview that he has has seen only a scattering of outlets, like Gannett’s Indianapolis Star in Indianapolis and the U.K. Guardian, experiment with similar hybrid paywall models.
“We don’t expect you to pay for the rewritten press release. We don’t expect you to pay for the breaking news” story also found in other media outlets, he said. Those stories remain free and draw readers to the main news site; the stories that “nobody else has or can do” then lures them behind the “Insider” paywall.
DeRienzo drew on his own experience with other emerging news business models in crafting the Hearst experiment. He was an executive at Digital First Media when that chain owned the Register. It tried a “dollars to dimes” model a decade ago. The concept was that an ad that used to fetch, say, a dollar for 100,000 readers could now fetch only a dime because of internet competition; so news organizations simply needed to grab ten times as many “eyeballs” to charge that same dollar, through search engine optimization and photo slide shows and gimmicks to make more people click on a site more times.
That experiment failed. It turned out more reader “eyeballs” didn’t sell more toasters or theater tickets or dry-cleaning visits. It turned out that news organizations didn’t necessarily need many many more readers as much they need a smaller core of people who deeply value news enough to pay for it.
It turned out that quality reporting that makes a difference matters more than big circulation/eyeball numbers. More isn’t better; better is better. Quality also will potentially pay the bills in the new newsiverse, as industry-watcher Matt Skibinski of the Lenfest Institute argues in this article entitled “One subscriber or 48,000 pageviews.”
“The math is totally different” now, DeRienzo said. “I think it leads to more accountable, better journalism too: If three people subscribe in response to an article to a story about corruption in the mayor’s office, that is equal in value to something that gets 100,000 page views. That’s a game changer.” As a result, the company has doubled down on in-depth reporting as part of the “Insider” pay wall roll-out, especially on Sunday. Some recent examples: veteran staffer Ed Stannard’s two pieces on the real estate and the broader religious sexual abuse implications of the recent trial verdict against Rabbi Daniel Greer; and veteran staffer Mary O’Leary’s dive into poverty statistics and their implications for New Haven’s government policies.
Hearst has supported ambitious regional investigative reporting as well for all its Connecticut dailies on topics like absentee ballot fraud and sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts, while also trying to figure out how to reinvent its 175-member newsroom (at all eight Connecticut dailies, including Torrington and Middletown) at a time when combined daily print circulation has dropped to 60,000. (Not a typo. That’s for all eight papers combined, according to DeRienzo.)
It also turned out that while digital advertising is growing, big tech companies like Google and Apple and Amazon, not news organizations themselves, are grabbing almost all the new revenue.
Meanwhile, national and international news organizations that previously failed with paywalls have found great success in recent years, suggesting shifting reader attitudes. Exhibit A is The New York Times, which has more than three million digital-only paid subscribers now (closing in on a total of 5 million subscribers and a decade goal of 10 million) and collects a clear majority of its revenue from readers rather than advertisers, a reversal of a century-old formula.
DeRienzo noticed something else during a stint at a national organization serving small grassroots online news sites. He headed the organization, LION Publishers, in between overseeing the Register under its previous hedge fund-backed owner and its new owner, the journalism-focused Hearst.
In that role, he noticed how smaller sites created community rather than simply sending stories into the anonymous ether.
“My experience in working with local online news sites showed me that there is a model out there in which, it improves journalism too, where local people who really value and appreciate what you’re doing are willing to pay. It’s not even a transaction as much as a statement of belief or support in what you’re doing in a lot of cases. You can call this a digital experience — but it is leaning into something that’s more of a community and more of a membership,” DeRienzo said.
So in its new paywall model, the Register/NHR Insider, offers subscribers the chance to have coffee with the editor, Helen Bennett; limits story commenting to subscribers; and includes a daily message to readers from Bennett taking them behind the scenes on a story of the day.
“It’s not about page views,” echoed John Ferraro, who as regional managing editor of Hearst’s Connecticut dailies oversees much of the in-depth coverage.
“It’s about trying to create a community,” agreed New Haven Editor Bennett.
In an email message to the Independent, industry-watcher Skibinski called the hybrid experiment worth conducting, while he expressed some skepticism.
“With a hybrid model, it’s harder for readers to build a reading habit, because the content they can sample isn’t the content that will keep them coming back. This is why the metered model, allowing readers to sample a certain amount of content from whatever parts of the site they choose, has been much more common among publishers. With the metered approach, readers can sample the content they’ll actually be paying for when they subscribe,” he wrote in an email.
“That said, there also haven’t been enough experiments with hybrid models for us to know for sure that they can’t work. It’s possible that enough readers are already engaged with and loyal to the Hearst publications doing this that they will subscribe easily, while the free breaking news and wire stories will help preserve page views from the readers who don’t subscribe. I’m eager to see how these publishers fare.”
Hearst has set a goal of luring enough online paid subscribers by the end of 2021 to fund its newsrooms (while paid print ads would fund the print operation), according to DeRienzo. (He declined to divulge the target number of subscribers or revenue or profit figures.) Skibinski advised that Hearst “follow the data and be willing to adjust” along the way. “If you’re seeing very high engagement from your subscribers on a certain category of content, try publishing some of that in front of the paywall to draw in new subscribers.”
Another challenge for any regional publisher: benefitting from the efficiencies of a larger organization, which sometimes entails have people making editorial decisions from a distance, while simultaneously connecting to local readers on a personal level.
In other cities, legacy local news publishers have cut back print press runs to fewer than seven days a week (or altogether) while continuing to publish daily online. One emerging model is to print a high-value Sunday print paper only while boosting daily online coverage.
DeRienzo said at this point Hearst doesn’t plan such a shift. The print product remains profitable. Some readers remain loyal, print diehards and value stories more in paper and ink.
Editors Bennett and Ferraro talked about that residual print loyalty, as well as the ambitious plans for the new hybrid paywall edition, during a joint appearance eon WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven program.” Click on the video below to watch it and follow some listener reactions.