Maybe NYT Can Learn Something From Small-Market Newspapers With Paywalls

As The New York Times prepares to charge its most frequent readers for content, it may want to examine the relative success with subscriptions experienced at smaller papers with well-established paywalls. Arkansas’ El Dorado News-Times or Ohio’s Norwalk Reflector, for example, have done comparatively well, according to a report by Advertising Age.

AdAge combed through last week’s results from an Audit Bureau of Circulations study and then asked high-performing papers how they thought paywalls impacted their circulations and revenue.

One pattern: It helps to find out what users want the most, and then make them pay for it:

“We absolutely believe our print circulation would be lower if we were providing full, free access online,” said Andrew Prutsok, its publisher. “I couldn’t say how much.”

The wall might not be as effective if it hadn’t made an important change along the way. “At first we were putting up our police log online every day for free,” Mr. Prutsok said. “Our online paid was stuck on about 140. When we took the police news away, the paid online doubled.”

At least in small towns, cops and robbers are worth a lot to readers. South Florida’s Citizen likewise charges for its online crime reporting.

Not all the lessons are transferable. National distribution means national advertising, and national advertisers want to reach an enormous audience. So shedding readers in the name of subscription revenue can be a dicey prospect for a paper like the Times. Mark Kaline, global media director at Kimberly-Clark, quoted in AdAge:

If … online audience does not convert to online subscribers as a result of a pay wall, it will likely impact ad pricing at the national level. Since smaller newspapers in markets outside the top 50 have a higher concentration of local advertisers and have less competition for local media dollars … they have had more encouraging results with pay walls to date.