Starting Oct. 1, the Post-Gazette will be charging for online content. Just don't call it a paywall.
"'Paywall' implies there's a hard lockdown" with material inaccessible to those who won't pay, says Joseph Pepe, the paper's president. "That's not what we're doing. A lot of our content will be out there for everyone to consume. We're calling this 'metered content'."
If that sounds a bit cautious, it's because the P-G -- like papers all across the country -- is trying to walk a tricky line in the Brave New Old World of making readers pay for online content as well as print, without driving readers away entirely. (Compare this to the previous Brave New World model, in which journalists gave away everything for free ... and then imbibed massive quantities of soma to improve their mood as ad revenue dwindled.) And the Post-Gazette has extra reason to be careful.
Here's how the new policy will work:
Online-only readers can sign up for a digital subscription costing $9.95 a month. (Print subscribers -- if any still exist -- will get their online content for free, though they'll have to register for it.) That will get you a login and password you can use anywhere -- work or home computer, iPad, smartphone, etc. Those who don't subscribe will be able to view a certain number of articles each month -- and be barred from seeing any others until they sign up for a subscription, or the month is up.
How many articles will you get to view? "That's a moving number for us," Pepe says. "Right now we're starting out with 10, but it's something that we'll constantly evaluate, to decide where the sweet spot is." In any event, once you're down to your last couple views, the P-G site will notify you ... much as the New York Times does.
There is a wrinkle, though. As the paper explains on an FAQ page about the new policy, if you view a story that is linked from a social-media site like Facebook or Twitter, that view will not be counted against your total. At least not yet.
"This is something we had huge conversations about," Pepe says. "We left this open because we do think there's a service there, if correctly used. But if we see that it's a loophole that people are abusing, we'll close it."
"I'd rather come out being lax and more open, and see what happens," Pepe adds. "A lot of papers locked everything down immediately, and I don't think they had a chance to learn from that."
Pepe notes that other forms of content will be free: The paper will not charge for obituaries, classified sections and some other features. Readers will also still be able to view the paper's main page and section pages, where headlines and brief story synopses are displayed.
Pepe says he's had a metered system in mind since he arrived at the paper last October. "It's something we've been working on for over a year," he says. "The first thing we had to do was make sure we had good-quality products that worked. When I first got here, we'd just started experimenting with apps and e-editions. We put together the phone and pad apps, and then we further developed the e-reader, and last year we did a complete redesign of the site."
Focus groups, he says, not only gave those moves the thumbs-up, but "told us that the marketplace is expecting" to pay for web content, one way or another.
Indeed, the P-G is just the latest local paper to start charging for online content. The Washington Observer-Reporter, for one, began using a similar "soft paywall" system -- allowing 10 views a month -- this past May. The Beaver County Times charges for access to archived material. And as the P-G noted in a statement, it's all part of a national trend:
The Post-Gazette joins hundreds of newspapers across the country in charging customers for its digital content. Most notably, the New York Times has been charging for its online content since 2011 and other major newspapers have followed suit, including the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune and others. The Post-Gazette’s sister newspaper, The Blade of Toledo, has been using the pay-for-content model since late last year.
But of course unlike the Blade or western Pennsylvania's smaller dailies, the P-G has a direct head-to-head competitor for daily local news, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Which does not charge for online content. Neither do the city's TV stations. Or Pittsburgh City Paper. Or PublicSource. Or WESA-FM. In fact, it's hard for me to think of a media market that, on a per capita basis, is served by so many outlets.
Pepe notes that newspapers must contend with TV stations and weeklies in other markets. As for the Trib, "One of the other things we had to take a look at was: Are we going to do things that are right, or are we going to do things in reaction to what the Trib does? And that's a no-win situation. They have their readers, and a niche that they fill, and we have a ton of people looking at our content on a monthly basis."
"I don't think the competition really entered into" discussions of online strategy, he adds. "The depth of what we cover is not going to be matched by anybody else in the marketplace. If they value their content, I think they ought to charge for it."
As someone who gives away content both online and in print, I tried not to take that amiss. Especially because newspapers are going to have to do something in the face of some incontrovertible economic facts: Online advertising simply doesn't pay as much as print ads do, and readers are increasingly moving online. (The P-G will, by the way continue hosting online ads, in all their irksome glory.) As Pepe put it, "In order for us to sustain the quality of journalism over here, we have to do it." And the P-G's online performance -- no doubt helped by many expatriates who like to check in on their old stomping grounds -- has been a source of strength for it.
Nevertheless, when the P-G posted a story about its new policy, the early response was almost universally negative, with "Bye-bye P-G" comments running rampant. Pepe is unfazed. "The people who are going to complain on the site right now are the ones who haven't been paying," he says. "So what do I have to lose? Maybe them commenting on the site."