Newspaper Paywalls Accelerating

It’s the year of the paywall: American newspapers have committed, for better or worse, to making readers pay for the news online, after years of giving away on the web what they charge a fortune for in print. Previously, Ebyline looked at statistics of paywall adoption and discovered that larger newspapers are building paywalls at significantly higher rates. But examining paywalls by newspaper size only tells part of the story.

Data out from the Newspaper Association of America (sorry, it’s behind a paywall!) now lets us know when newspapers activated their paywalls and what flavor of paywall each paper uses. A few trends pop out of the data (which has a few holes but is otherwise pretty comprehensive): meters galore, discounts for print subscribes are overwhelmingly popular and, most significantly, an accelerating pace of adoption that peaked late last year but is picking up steam again. This suggests that while experimentation with paywall specifics continues, the journalism industry believes they ultimately have a solution to their digital problem.

The metered paywall approach (allowing readers to read, say, 5 or 10 articles before they have to pay for content) is the most popular, with 84% of the newspapers listed in NAA’s database. It’s also the paywall strategy used by The New York Times, which recently changed the number of free articles readers can access to 10, down from 20, earlier this year. On average, newspapers allow 11.2 free articles before readers encounter the paywall.

A handful of publications are using variations such as a paywall only for certain types of content (as with staff-written local news and sports at the Waco Tribune-Herald) or a two-site approach where one is paid and the other is free (as at The Boston Globe).

Newspapers give discounts (or free online access) to print subscribers in 94% of paywall cases, which suggests that they’re trying to transition print subscribers to the web without losing print subscribers.

Here’s a look at the pace of paywall adoption over the last few years from the NAA data:

Paywall adoption really starts to take off in 2011, which we suspect is partly a reaction to The New York Times first adopting a paywall in March 2011. That large spike during the third quarter of 2011 is due to paywall adoption by companies like DigitalFirst, Lee Enterprises and Scripps, which all own multiple newspapers (in fact, half of the newspapers that implemented a paywall during that period were owned by DigitalFirst). The Boston Globe also implemented its first paywall in September 2011, so it’s also included in the 2011, Q3 numbers.

The newspaper business will almost certainly end 2012 with a lot more paywalls as big chains move from toe-in-the-water phase to full-on adoption. Gannett has promised to put all its newspapers, except for USA Today, behind a wall by the end of the year. The other prominent holdout is the Washington Post. Both newspapers have good reasons to keep access free. Currently, there are some simple hacks that readers can use to circumvent paywalls, so we’ll be curious to see if more readers start using these hacks or if publishers start tightening up these gaps in paywall policies.