Drawing readers through this sort of porous pay wall has obvious advantages: it pumps up "unique visitors" totals and gives news organizations a chance to pitch their paid service. Most won't sign up for that service, of course. But this kind of taste can have a powerful impact on a more important audience: the long-time subscribers papers need to hold onto if they are to survive.
Ken Doctor, an industry analyst and author of Newsonomics, explains it this way. Imagine a subscriber to a daily newspaper. In the mid-2000s, he begins reading the paper online, for free. Eventually, he drops his print subscription. And even as he returns to the paper's site on a near daily basis, he begins exploring other local news sites.
If the paper, declining in quality, suddenly erects a ProJo-like "hard pay wall" — no meter, limited access by way of social media, just about everything of value locked away — he may just drop the paper altogether. But if you give him a taste — say, 10 free articles per month — and let him know that he'll have to pay for full access, the psychology changes.
He sees the value in the stories, if they're any good. Perhaps he decides it's worth hanging on to some sort of subscription.
The importance of retaining that reader — and squeezing some money out of him — grows clearer when you understand the shifting business model for newspapers. The rule of thumb used to be 20/80: 20 percent of revenue from circulation and 80 percent from advertising. But with advertising revenue plummeting, beefing up circulation revenue and surging closer to a 50/50 mix — rather than collapsing into it — has become increasingly important.
The New York Times Company, which owns the Times, the Globe, and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, has already zipped past the 50/50 threshold. In the third quarter, the company reported $182.6 million in advertising revenue (down 8.9 percent from the previous year) and $234.9 million in circulation revenue (up 7.4 percent from the previous year).
The circulation gains were powered by increased prices for print subscriptions and growth in digital subscriptions. The ProJo has boosted the cost of a print subscription for its dwindling readership from $364 per year in the fall of 2009 to $416 in the fall of 2012. But its digital subscription totals are paltry — just 1398 customers for the daily paper, at last count.
If the reader — rather than advertiser — is the key to saving the Providence Journal, the paper has to do far more to appeal to his increasingly web-centric tastes.
Of course, even the finest site will fail if that paper can't give him something compelling to read.
Its staff shrunken and its national ambitions curtailed, the ProJo — like so many other dailies around the country — is intently focused on local news.
But the local news, told the wrong way, can be deathly boring.
As I write, on November 27, the main story on the front page of the paper is headlined " 'A positive step forward': Mayor, unions to begin talks on possible concessions." There are two large photos: one of Cranston mayor Allan Fung huddling with the city solicitor at a City Council meeting and another of retired firefighters standing at the back of the auditorium.