The Chicago Tribune has become one of the latest major newspapers in the US to announce plans to introduce a paywall on its online site, behind which it will place “premium” content including in-depth reports and analysis, columnists and reviews.
At first glance, this may seem little different to action taken by various other news titles that have sought to maintain or increase revenue at a time when print subscriptions are diminishing. However, the Chicago Tribune is attempting to breathe new life into the process by offering its readers the opportunity to read selected articles from Forbes and The Economist as part of its new premium package. The announcement of a partnership between these three titles certainly seems to prove that Bill Adee (vice president for digital development and operations at the Chicago Tribune) and his team understand the need to offer something more than access to their usual articles and reviews in order to justify charging readers for content that was previously free to view online.
Chicago Business first reported on the issue of a Tribune paywall back in May, though then, as now, few details have been forthcoming about how the system will be structure or how it will be priced. The publication’s website is expected to be re-launched within the next week, but no schedule for implementing the paywall has been announced. Instead, the reformatted website will invite users to create an account, which will have to be logged on to in order to access premium content for free. Maggie Wartik, a spokeswoman for the Tribune, stated: "No decisions have been made yet on pricing and/or the pay wall at all. The site is free for everyone, indefinitely”. The registration wall will serve as a template for an eventual paywall, but for now the company is keen to take its time, wanting to evaluate customer reaction to the new site, and allow consumers to become accustomed to having an account, before deciding how much to charge for subscriptions.
The Tribune’s gentle approach to introducing a paywall is rather at odds with that of The Times and The Sunday Times, whose online content is completely cut off from non-subscribers. One model the Tribune might be keen to follow is that of The New York Times paywall, which allows readers to read ten articles for free before the paywall is activated, and has so far attracted almost half a million subscribers and encouraged new growth in print subscriptions. Other titles owned by the Chicago Tribune’s parent company, The Tribune Co., have attempted to achieve similar success by following a subscription system based on that of the NYT. Chicago Business also suggests that the Tribune may opt for a system that charges for certain sections within the paper, such as sport, entertainment or literary news. The paper has already experimented with niche markets in its print edition, launching “Printer’s Row” a weekly literary journal. If this is indeed the system that the paper opts for, a key question will be how many such niches it will be able to exploit, and for how long. Paywalls are far from a perfect solution to falling revenues, with Jim Kirk, Editor in Chief of Chicago-based Sun-Times Media Holdings LLC Editor in Chief, admitting that the company will be re-evaluating “the whole pay-model system”.
The good news for the Tribune is that, according to a recent report by Gannett, the U.S’s largest publisher, paywalls are expected to contribute to a twenty-five per cent increase in revenue by the end of 2013, despite a drop in circulation. The combination of new content, increased social media interaction and an approach tailored to customer feedback could make a success of the Chicago Tribune’s paywall, when it eventually arrives.