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After more than a decade of posting news free on the Internet, newspapers have increasingly turned to pay models for revenue — and the Columbia Missourian is no different. But the model the Missourian adopted was.

Staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students and led by a team of faculty editors, the Missourian is a laboratory for learning, teaching and innovation. And that means experimentation. After all, says Executive Editor Tom Warhover, if we don’t try it, who will?

So in August 2012, the Missourian launched an experiment: a pay model no other general-purpose newspaper in the country had tried. Instead of the popular metered model, which allows digital readers of papers such as The New York Times to see a limited number of articles before being asked to pay, the Missourian let all readers see content for 24 hours. Once an article reached the end of its 24-hour window, it became available only to readers with a membership, which gave them full access to the Missourian’s digital products.

Bottom line: “It didn’t work,” Warhover said in a recent Missourian column introducing the website’s new revenue model, Google Surveys, which requires nonmembers to answer one or two marketing questions before they can read an article. “After 18 months, memberships hit a plateau, and the revenue didn’t offset the deficits, namely reduced traffic to the website and costs affiliated with managing the system.”

That’s not to say it wasn’t a valuable experiment. The Missourian might not have gained much in terms of revenue, but it gained insight about how to promote the benefits of membership.

Why “membership” rather than “subscription”?

“A membership suggests you have a stake in the success of the organization,” Warhover said in an August 2012 column.

But members also get more than that. For $5.95 per month, they get benefits that nonmembers don’t, including exclusive content (occasional pieces never accessible to nonmembers, such as annotated City Council reports) and sneak peeks (content that’s accessible to members before it’s accessible to nonmembers, such as e-books). They also get full access to the Missourian’s tablet and smartphone apps. Previously, members also had exclusive access to archived content — content more than 24 hours old. Now that the Missourian has changed its pay model, everyone has access to that, but members have the benefit of reading articles without taking surveys.

But we can’t expect members to stick around — or nonmembers to join — if we don’t draw attention to these benefits. Here’s what the Missourian has learned about promoting premium, or members-only, content:

1. Adopt a ‘today’ mindset

“What are we doing for our members today?”

That question is posted on computer monitors throughout the newsroom. Previously, that often meant, What members-only content are we linking to or promoting? It encouraged us to think about the pay model and how we deliver content to our most loyal readers. It required finding a balance between delivering free content to nonmembers and offering premium content to members.

Now, our 24-hour pay model is gone, but that doesn’t make the question irrelevant. If anything, we need to become even more creative in finding opportunities not only to offer exclusive content to members but also to promote the rewards of membership.

Previously, nonmembers were invited to join each time they tried to access premium content. We also promoted some archived content on our website, partially as an effort to encourage new memberships: You can read this if you pay. But now, archived content is not exclusive to nonmembers. Instead, nonmembers take surveys to gain access to articles.

“It remains to be seen where the irritation threshold lies,” Warhover said in his column about the survey model. “Active Missourian readers may find the monthly membership fee a bargain compared to answering surveys for 10 or 20 stories daily.”

In theory, the more articles readers view, the closer they get to that threshold. So even without restricting access to nonmembers, we must constantly think about our membership model: How do we boost page views per visit? And what are we doing for our members today?

2. ‘Sell’ the content

We need to “sell” members-only content, Warhover stressed last year.

But “it feels weird,” one editor remarked. We’re journalists, not marketers. Our job is to report the news, not to sell it. Isn’t it?

You’ll hear plenty of journalists argue that in the digital age, you’re naïve to think that revenue doesn’t influence how you present your content. But it’s not just the digital age. Journalists have been selling the news from the beginning. We write teasers for Page 1A — promoting the content inside the paper. We design the front page with attention to what is displayed above the fold — knowing full well that our design could influence single-copy sales. We write headlines and leads aimed at pulling readers deeper into stories. Even our news judgment — which stories we publish and their hierarchy on the pages — tells our audience what to read.

“Selling” members-only content isn’t like selling an advertisement. It’s a way to complement our coverage, to offer more information, to draw attention to something special.

As we stepped up these efforts, we found that our interactive copy editing (ICE) desk was key. The Missourian’s ICE desk is a digital-first production desk that edits copy, writes headlines, creates photo galleries, links to related content, shares content on social media and —now — promotes premium content.

3. Offer an experience

In making a push to offer exclusive content to digital members, wire content was a key focus at first because it was a quick way to supplement content we were already providing. A challenge was making Associated Press content worth paying for, considering it was widely available on the Internet for free. So we aimed to offer it to users as part of a larger experience, rather than just stand-alone content, in an effort to keep them at ColumbiaMissourian.com.

The Dallas Morning News did this with its premium website, abandoning its pay model and instead offering subscribers a more user-friendly, ad-free experience on its website. (The Dallas Morning News shutdown its premium website on July 10, shifting resources to its mobile audience.) Other websites have made similar efforts to emphasize experience over content. The Missourian didn’t have the resources to completely overhaul its website or to test expensive new technology, so we made do with very basic techniques — which could be employed on our ICE desk — to create a unique experience, even if the content was not unique to our website. There are a few ways we did this:

  • Packaging: A package of stories, as opposed to an individual story, aims to keep readers engaged longer and provide a more comprehensive experience. When the health care exchanges opened at the beginning of October 2013, we provided members a package of eight stories highlighting the impact of health care reform on different types of individuals.
  • Aggregation: The Associated Press occasionally produces stories that summarize major topics in the news. We used that as a starting point, adding media, links to other news websites and links to previous Missourian coverage. Here, we did this with the Syria conflict:
  • Integrating premium content with free content: Whenever we offered premium wire content for our members, we linked to it from a story that was accessible to all readers. This not only promoted our content to members, but it also let nonmembers see that they could get something more if they joined. Sometimes, this was as simple as linking to a members-only analysis piece from a news-of-the-day article. Other times, we linked to a package or aggregation.

The print edition is another opportunity to promote members-only content. For example, we ran one of the Affordable Care Act profiles in print and teased to the members-only package online.

In the end, the payoff on our efforts to promote wire content was underwhelming. Traffic to this content was low. However, we have been able to apply the techniques we tried with wire content to other areas of the website.

4. Think local

A survey conducted in January by Missouri School of Journalism graduate student Elizabeth Stephens has given the Missourian a clearer picture of who our members are and what they want.

“Producing quality local content is the Missourian’s core strength, and that is reflected in the survey,” Stephens said in her research analysis. “

Members and nonmembers are looking to the Missourian for news about their community and find it valuable.” Members weren’t interested in most wire news, despite our efforts to deliver it in a unique way. So promoting local content has become our priority.

“There’s value in unlimited access to the Missourian archives,” Warhover said in a 2012 column introducing the 24-hour pay model.

In fact, one of the Missourian’s strengths, he says, is enterprise journalism — much of which is relevant long after its first 24 hours of publication. So digging that out of the archives became key to promoting content to members, using the same concepts we applied with wire stories.

Now, archived content is no longer for members’ eyes only. But promoting it is no less important. As noted earlier, maintaining our mindset about our membership model is critical, and a big part of that will be maximizing page views per visit. Promoting archived content is an important component of this strategy.

5. Get social

The 24-hour pay model had some limitations, but probably the greatest was social media. For nonmembers, content had a life of 24 hours on our website, but that meant it lived for only a day on social media as well, limiting its potential reach (in the first five months of this calendar year, 19 percent of our website’s traffic came from social media). Social media users did not like to hit our pay model, so our strategy focused on sharing content only within the first 24 hours.

There were some exceptions: we occasionally shared members-only content, making note that it was for members and often including a link to our membership page. This wasn’t particularly fruitful, though, because our typical social media follower is a nonmember. As Stephens found in her membership survey, nearly 80 percent of nonstudent members surveyed didn’t follow the Missourian’s social media accounts and the number of new nonstudent members who joined as a result of a promotion on social media was negligible.

Coverage that followed the suicide of a mid-Missouri teenager in September 2013 illustrates our social media limitations with the 24-hour pay model. After the boy’s death, his father shared an emotional first-person account with the Missourian. This piece was part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which was always free; it was never restricted to members only. The story, our most read of the year, performed remarkably well during its first 24 hours, but the majority of traffic to that story came in the week that followed — and most of it was from Facebook. Meanwhile, Missourian reporter Seth Boster wrote an award-winning article about how the boy’s friends in the marching band were coping with his death. Traffic was high the first day, driven mainly by Facebook, but quickly declined in the following days. Time readers spent on that story was greatly reduced after the first day as well, which might indicate that many readers were unable to access the full story because they weren’t members. We can only speculate how well that story might have performed after 24 hours had it been accessible to readers longer, but we would have had more opportunities to promote it.

Reader response since Warhover announced the transition from the 24-hour pay model to Google Surveys has been positive. Many nonmembers had indicated frustration with the previous model and were eager for a change. Time will tell if Google Surveys works for the Missourian, but in any event, it is likely to teach us a whole new list of lessons.

Monica Kwasnik  
 
Guest blogger


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