26 November 2009

Will JP's plunge into paywalls pay off?

The eyes of the local news industry will be on six small weekly newspapers owned by Johnston Press, as their websites are used in a paywall trial, Holdthefrontpage has revealed.

Since the story - which was followed up by the Guardian and Press Gazette along with other journalism blogs - broke, JP has confirmed the names of the six paid-for titles involved in the ground-breaking trial, which will run for three months.

They are the Worksop Guardian in Nottinghamshire, the Ripley and Heanor News in Derbyshire, the Whitby Gazette in North Yorkshire, the Northumberland Gazette, the Ayrshire-based Carrick Gazette and the Southern Reporter in Selkirk.

Visitors will now be unable to access content beyond the homepage unless they pay £5 for a 3-month subscription (the equivalent of 40p per week).

HTFP stated how four of the six have average weekly circulations of under 10,000 and one, the Carrick Gazette, sells just 2,572 copies a week.

JP's digital strategy director Lori Cunningham told HTFP: "It's a small scale trial so we can better understand what the consumer dynamics are around paid-for content.”

She added that the company currently had "no plans" to extend the trial beyond three months or to roll it out to other titles.

However HTFP reported that they have seen an internal company memo which makes clear that the trial will be extended if it proves a success.

"The switch to a paid-for model is part of a broader roll-out across Johnston Press and in line with industry moves in this area to find a sustainable business model going forward. Customers are used to paying for content in-paper and we are simply transferring this thinking online," the memo stated.

Meanwhile, Trinity Mirror indicated it would not rule out introducing a paywall on its titles although it has no current plans to do so.

Digital director Chris Bunyan said: "Now is a time when a lot of publishers are experimenting and over the years we'll see some failures and successes. We wouldn't rule it out."

Whether the trial is a success remains to be seen. Kevin Ward, editor of the Newsquest-owned Worcester News has previously suggested that local titles are enough of a “niche” product to be able to successfully charge for content.

However some of the comments on HTFP would suggest otherwise. One reader stated how he “wouldn’t visit for free, let alone pay for it,” complaining about the lack of interactive content on one of the sites involved in the experiment.

Another suggested that all such a trial would prove is how readers would be unwilling to pay for a “poor product” unless JP invested in quality copy.

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