The announcement that we will be putting up a paywall next month elicited some…spirited opinions from a few of you.
Believe you me, if we saw a viable option that kept full access to the site free for all readers, we’d be pursuing it. But the financial pressures we’re facing in our quest for sustainability aren’t unique to the Shawnee Mission Post.
We’re a member of a trade association for community news websites called Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen more and more of our peers reach the conclusion that without readers willing to invest in the product, it’s almost impossible to pay for the reporting resources necessary to cover a community.
Unfortunately, a number of long-running, well-respected sites with sizable audiences have made the decision to stop publishing because of these issues. Just this month, the Watershed Post, which has covered a community in upstate New York since 2010, announced it was ceasing daily publication.
In suburban Charlotte, N.C., David Boraks and Lyndsay Kibiloski closed their operations in the summer of 2015. Their farewell messages (David’s is here; Lyndsay’s is here) summarize the state of the industry well. As Lyndsay notes, “We worked many other avenues in search of revenue to allow our readers to continue getting a free product…The bottom line is, free services are not sustainable.”
We are well aware that many — in fact, the vast, vast majority — of our readers won’t be willing to pay. But after seven years of building the site, it’s become clear that if we’re going to be around for another seven, something’s got to change.
Below are answers to some of the questions we’ve gotten about the decision to start charging a subscription fee for full access to the site. Hope these help explain the decision.
Why are you doing this?
Because to employ the editorial staff we need to keep the site viable, we need more money.
We’re very grateful to the local businesses who have recognized the value in advertising with us — without them, we wouldn’t have been able to keep operating this long. But it became clear a couple of years ago that if we were going to be able to make a long-term go of this, we needed more revenue than local advertising from one site was providing.
Initially, we decided to attempt to reach the scale we needed by expanding. With two sites, the thinking went, we would be able to attract additional advertisers and employ enough reporters — three — to ensure that the sites would be stable both from a financial and staffing perspective. That is, we could pay enough people to ensure that if someone got sick or hurt or quit, we would have enough bandwidth to fill the gap for a time.
We launched the Blue Valley Post last year, and while traffic was higher than we’d anticipated, we were unable to attract enough Founding Sponsors to make it financially feasible. (It’s hard to convince businesses to invest in a publication when it doesn’t have a track record yet).
The other option was to ask the people who use the site most often to pay for full access through a paywall. That’s where we are today.
If your traffic has gone up so much, why don’t you just sell more ads? Huh? Huh? Checkmate, loser.
Believe it or not, it has occurred to us that we should leverage our growing traffic to sell more ads. Unfortunately, our efforts to significantly increase advertising revenue the past two years have not been successful. Though site traffic has been steadily increasing — February was the biggest traffic month in site history — revenue from advertising started plateauing in 2015. And not from a lack of effort. We brought on the site’s first full-time sales director at the start of 2016, and she made approximately 2,500 contacts with potential advertisers last year. While we did bring in a handful of new accounts, the vast majority of our advertising revenue continues to come from people who have been with the site for several years now. Sites like ours are still a new medium, and it’s been difficult to convince businesses to spend their limited marketing dollars in an unfamiliar way.
Paywalls never work. Why don’t you just give up?
Interesting perspective. Thanks for the feedback.
I donated to the site during your campaign last fall. Will I get any kind of a discount for subscribing?
First of all, we are incredibly grateful to those of you who have stepped up the past two years to make voluntary donations to the site. We would not have been able to make ends meet without your generosity.
We’d hoped to be able to ride through until the fall without having to turn to readers for funding again, but once we made the decision to put up the paywall, it made more sense to do it sooner than later. Still, we want to recognize the investment you all made in us seven months ago.
For those of you who donated $10, $25 or $50, we’ll be giving you one month of free access to the site. For those of you who donated $100 or $200, we’ll be giving you free access to the site until September 1.
You’ll be receiving an email from us with instructions about how to set up your account to get your free access.
Will there still be ads and sponsored content on the site?
Yes, we will continue to have the display ads and sponsored content that you currently see on the site. The reason that we’re putting up the paywall is that we need additional money, not just different money.
That said, we want to ensure that people willing to part with their hard-earned cash for Shawnee Mission Post access aren’t aggressively annoyed by ads. So we will no longer be selling the most intrusive ad options — the pop-up ad and the text ad that sticks to the top of the page. (From time to time, though, we may use that sticky text option for house messages).
We’ve made a conscious effort to balance ad prominence with reader experience. I’m sure some of you will suggest that the ads and promotions we feature on the site are still too in-your-face. But, all things considered, I think we’ve found a pretty decent balance. We try to keep it relatively uncluttered (it could be worse…), and we don’t run national network ads, or video ads that automatically play when you land on a page.
Those prices are way out of line. I would pay, maybe, like $1 a month for access to your site. How did you come up with those prices?
The fact is, no matter how low the rates are, the vast majority of people who visit the site aren’t going to pull out their cards and subscribe. Data from other paywall launches suggests that those of you who have told us “I would pay maybe $10 a year” for a subscription are very unlikely to pay even that.
We developed our pricing structure based on an analysis of our traffic patterns as well as the pricing models that have worked for other sites that use paywalls. We have a significant group of “superusers” who come to the site at least several times per week. The bulk of readers, however, only visit the site a few times a month. The way we’ve set up the paywall is designed to preserve the vast majority of traffic that comes from casual readers while asking our superusers to invest in keeping the operation going.
We think that the basic price for full access, $5.95 per month, is fair considering there is no other publication providing daily coverage of northeast Johnson County. Those of you who suggest that there’s “too much free competition out there” to justify subscribing are not paying very close attention to the local news market. I’d wager to guess that at least 50 percent of the coverage other news outlets produce for northeast Johnson County comes from stories we published first. And no one produces anywhere close to the volume of relevant local content we do.
Again, we know that most of you won’t be willing to pay. But the prices are pretty affordable in the context of other web-publications. Here are the weekly rates a handful of other publications charge for full digital access (note that these are the full-price rates — not their introductory offers):
- New York Times: $3.75/week
- Washington Post: $2.50/week
- Kansas City Star: $2.99/week
- Kansas City Business Journal: $2.11/week
Our basic full-access subscription will cost $1.37/week.
For full-access plus the daily email newsletter, we’ll charge $1.85/week.
When I subscribe, when and how will I be billed?
You’ll provide a credit or debit card to use for monthly charges for your subscription. You’ll be charged the monthly rate the day you subscribe, and then that same day every month thereafter that your subscription is active. So, for instance, if you subscribed to the basic full-access plan on April 5, you’d be charged $5.95 on that day, and then again on May 5. You’ll receive an alert via email a week before you are charged each month.
How many devices can I read the site on with my subscription?
Each subscription is meant to serve an entire household. You can use your subscription credentials on up to five devices.
How many people will need to subscribe for this to work for you all? If it doesn’t work, will you stop publishing?
To be financially viable, we’ll eventually need to generate at least $50,000 a year from subscriptions. So, a ballpark figure is approximately 1,000 subscribers at minimum to make the operation sustainable. Is it a sure thing? Far from it. As you all are all-too-aware, two decades of getting access to pretty much everything you want on the Internet for free makes the idea of paying for content hard to swallow for many. But there has been a trend toward more people being willing to support the sites they value with subscriptions the past couple of years. We’re asking you to join that trend if you think having a daily local news source in northeast Johnson County is important.
Regardless of how the paywall performs, we’ll figure out a way to continue publishing at least through the end of 2017.
Somebody’s got to cover the school board elections, after all.
We’ll be back in early April with some final details before we push the subscription infrastructure live.