Freemium strategy pays off for California newspaper

Convincing readers to pay for content rather than the physical delivery of a newspaper is key to building online subscriptions, Roger Coover, president and publisher of the Stockton Record, told an audience of industry insiders at the INK+BEYOND conference.

It’s a shift that’s not as difficult as one might imagine, related Coover, speaking at the conference’s session, Rethinking Newspapers: Digital Paywalls or Freemiums?

Readers continue to connect online content with the newspaper that produced it, and that connection could translate into online revenue, he said, urging his listeners to seriously consider online subscriptions. “My goal is to urge you not to leave money on the table during this period of significant transition.”

Not only is the industry dialogue over pay-to-view strategies ongoing, so too is the debate about which model to use: paywall or freemium.

Coover told his audience he prefers the latter, which provides “just enough free content to entice you and then to up-sell you to a paid version.” A strategy of placing all content behind a paywall could result in traffic being reduced to the point it adversely impacts advertising on a site, and could impede the flow of user-generated content, he said. “We don’t want to ask for user content and then tell them they can’t look at it. You don’t want to totally shut people out. Give them a taste.”

The newspaper in Stockton, California, launched its online subscription model 15 months ago during the depths of the recession. Print circulation was declining; today the paper has 37,000 daily subscribers and 41,000 on Sunday. It used to be 10,000 higher, said Coover.

The move to online subscriptions has paid off, he said. “Our experiences have been much better than expected.” The paper has 330 online-only subscribers and 29,046 registered users. The online edition receives 19,000 unique visits daily, and 2.5 million page views a month. It has three subscription models: print only, at $199, online only, at $219, print/online, at $239.

Even though overall traffic has decreased, 25 percent for unique visits and 35 percent for page views, additional online revenue is being measured in six figures, Coover told his audience.

The paper currently offers limited free access to articles, but drilling down into the content comes at a cost. “If you want our local content, after a point we are going to make you pay for it.” Paid users tend to be local residents, said Coover, which increases their value to potential online advertisers.

The newspaper’s current focus is on daily deals, launching a digital agency business, developing an app for tablet editions, and modernizing existing sites. They are not focused on “chasing verticals we have lost.”

Online subscription models don’t come in a one-approach-fits-all template, and different markets require different strategies said Coover. “For us, being a smaller market, it has been the right thing to do. You judge your own market.”

Click here to view Roger Coover’s presentation from INK+BEYOND 2011 »