Free Papers CAN Create Digital PAID Subscribers | Two Case Studies

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Understandably, long-serving and dedicated editorial and advertising staffs of free community newspapers have been reluctant to add a paid online subscription version, and primarily not to upset loyal readers and advertisers with a major shift of the paper’s business model.

That reluctance can be overcome as Jim Rule, president/publisher of Acorn Newspaper Group in California and Frank McCracken, president/publisher of The Chesterfield Observer in a Richmond, VA suburb, explained during the June 24 Editor & Publisher Webinar hosted by Mike Blinder, Publisher.

With the technology and guidance of Mathew Larson, president/CEO of Our-Hometown, Inc., and his team, both papers are enjoying substantial revenues from a metered paywall model during a relatively short period.

Since its launch during fall 2018 of an Our-Hometown metered paywall, Acorn has attracted 969 paid subscribers and 84.5% of those have a 12-month subscription at a maximum of $36/month, or a new revenue stream of almost $30,000 per year. The Chesterfield Observer’s online subscription model launched during October 2020. Within less than a year, it has 191 paid subscribers, with an annual subscription of $48, resulting in revenues of approximately $8,000.

According to Rule, Acorn readers of the print version and others in the Ventura County/Los Angeles County area where Acorn’s five papers are distributed supported the paid online model and began to pay for a subscription.

“Highlighting the additional content and new advertising opportunities of a paid online site is critical when selling this concept to an editorial/advertising staff, potential subscribers and advertisers,” said Rule. “We also found it beneficial to explain the content of our print version is uploaded to the metered site the night before the print edition is published.”

Rule added his paper adds content to the site daily instead of weekly, especially breaking news, which is also free content. Often, he publishes a shorter version in advance of a longer story in the print edition to generate interest in it.

“I must admit I listened to my editorial staff longer than I should, but my advice to other publishers is to trust your gut,” said Rule. “My advice is to be motivated by the opportunity to increase your local news coverage; expand into complementary content, such as video and audio, that can’t be included in a print version; and provide advertisers with better engagement with current audiences and new audiences unavailable from any other channel.”

Larson explained Our-Hometown helps these and other small, free newspapers to create a valuable email database and then marketing special offers during the initial registration process of their metered paywall. For example, Rule changed Acorn’s paywall to a free registration during the March–July 2020 pandemic period, but those registering had to share their email addresses. During those five months, Acorn collected 4,706 email addresses and was able to convert 236 of them to new subscribers.

McCracken’s experience was very similar, as the free registration offered during the first month of the paywall generated approximately 3,000 email addresses, resulting in a total database of approximately 4,000.

“The pushback we received from advertisers was minimal,” said McCracken. “The pandemic only accelerated local advertisers’ understanding that they must be committed to a more prominent online presence. They needed other ad channels and our paywall had been operating for enough months to prove its efficacy. Plus, many advertisers agreed subscribers are valuable because they are willing to pay for the added content and convenience of online access.

“I’m also very appreciative of Our-Hometown’s team approach with its clients. Mathew and his team provide us with regular communications about advancements in the technology and case studies and encourages us to share our experiences and challenges with other papers.”

Larson added Our-Hometown technology includes a PDF extraction tool, so ads can be placed on a paper’s homepage outside the paywall and with a click-through to advertisers’ Websites. An iOS and Android app is also available to help papers reach more mobile-oriented people, especially younger adults, and the content on the subscription site automatically loads to those apps when they are published online.

“The metered paywall sites we created for Acorn and The Chesterfield Observer and all our clients are based on WordPress,” said Larson. “A newspaper can send us a PDF of their print edition and we can convert the contents and create and launch their Website within days. We also have a staff who are constantly upgrading those sites with the most recent WordPress apps/tools developers are continuously creating. Papers would need a full-time, dedicated person just for this task.”

More information about Our-Hometown Media: 

Slide deck used during the Webinar:


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