After deciding to expand its paid-digital system – previously applied only to readers outside of Manitoba – to all readers, the Winnipeg Free Press reviewed available paid systems in the marketplace. 

Few of the staff on the paid-digital concept team were, themselves, paying for digital news; they asked themselves why. The answer came down to the traditional equation: “value equals benefit minus cost,” – and the cost, it seemed, wasn’t balancing well against the benefits. 

Simply put, to increase value, the publications would either have to decrease cost or increase benefit – or do both, which in the end, was what the Free Press set out to do.

Cost is measured in many ways, price being the most common and possibly the easiest to address. Less obvious costs are more difficult to identify and address, such as “commitment cost” when readers are asked to pay up-front for something, or “cognitive cost” when readers have to decide what to read or how much they might read from a publication in the future. 

“Even the effort a reader must expend to find content is a significant cost, as is adding even a single additional click to the reader’s path on the site,” explains Iain Coates, manager of business insight and strategy for the news media company. “All of these costs needed to be minimised if the concept was to realise success.”

The system the Free Press settled upon combines a very low meter (after three articles, users are asked to register), followed by a 30-day unlimited-content trial. When the trial ends, users are asked to choose between a traditional all-access monthly subscription or a read-now-pay-later plan. For readers paying by the article, the media company added a no-question-asked money-back guarantee on every article. 

“We created a system that removed upfront commitments by implementing a post-pay environment,” Coates says. “No wallets to pre-load, and no decision about how much to spend before seeing our content. On a monthly basis, we keep track of everything our readers consume, subtract what they have refunded, and then charge their preferred form of payment.” 

Having settled on a payment scheme, the media company’s planning team returned to its value analysis to analyse benefit. 

In an average day, the Winnipeg Free Press publishes 350 pieces of content, but its readers were looking at only about six articles over five minutes. Those numbers had remained largely unchanged for the previous eight years, even though the company had added more features to online stories such as videos, slideshows, interactive graphics, and comments. 

Producing more content, then, was not the answer. Rather, extracting more value for the reader from the content being produced seemed to be key.

The team turned to personalisation: helping readers find the content they wanted to read. The Free Press implemented a content-recommendation engine at its redesigned Web site’s very root level: Each page of the site is personalized based on a complex set of rules marrying newsroom curation, popular and trending articles, and what is important to each individual reader based on their past behaviour on the site, their demographics, and how they arrived at the site. 

“In the end we did add additional editorial resources, but the focus has been better – not more – editorial content,” says Wendy Sawatzky, associate editor for digital news. “With content personalisation, I hope we can do even better by showing readers articles of interest that they might not have otherwise found on our site.” 

Is it working? 

It’s still too early to answer the first question everyone asks, but Free Press analysts are confident results so far has shown there is an appetite for the model.

On the content front, the personalisation and site redesign are absolutely considered a success: users read more content on the site, they spend more time per visit, and they return more often. Engagement time with each article has increased by 20%, the amount of content read by users each visit has increased by an average of 87%, and total engagement time has more than doubled. 

Even more promising, the impact was not just a one-time jump when the redesigned site launched; growth continues organically each month. 

“This increased engagement has helped to mitigate traffic loss owed to the friction created by asking readers to pay, and helped us to maintain ample inventory for current ad sales and growth,” says Coates. 

Has the move to individual-article sales driven the newsroom to pursue only the most lucrative content? “Absolutely not,” Sawatzky says.

“Individual-article sales provide new insight on what interests our readers, and that does play a role in informing editorial decisions,” she says. “But part of what we’ve learned from reviewing analytics on individual-article sales is that our readers are willing to pay for quality local journalism – and that’s been the cornerstone of the paper’s success for 143 years.”

On the financial front: The publications had hoped within a year to have 70,000 readers start trials and to convert about 10% of those trials to a paying relationship. It has almost met that target in only the first four months: more than 6,000 readers are either subscribing monthly or paying by the article, and growth is continuing steadily. 

In the first four months of the project, the news media company has sold more than 100,000 individual articles, and in doing so, monetising an audience that was typically ignored. 

The Free Press feels confident that it has not eroded its monthly subscriber audience base by adding in the micro-accounting platform; on the contrary, it has proven to be a popular entry point for readers who are not sure which plan works for them. Some pay-by-the-article readers have even thanked the company for the ability to pay for only the stories they want to read, rather than forcing them to subscribe monthly. 

While the pay-by-the-article audience is still small, it continues to grow. It is yet to be determined whether readers who pay per article will remain loyal, move to becoming monthly subscribers, or drift away. But early signs suggest the model can work.  

The project has also been successful in activating current print readers. More than 27,000 print subscribers have created linked digital accounts, providing a critical continuity between the legacy print publication and current and future digital-delivery methods.

What’s next? 

The new revenues, though certainly material, have not changed the fundamental issue facing traditional publishers. There is still much work to be done, but the effort to focus first on readers is paying dividends to the organisation and is laying the groundwork for its future plans. 

“Armed with this success, we plan on continuing the effort to individualise the news for each reader, to tweak the content-recommendation process for all readers, and to add video to the recommendations,” Coates says.

“On the editorial front, we’re exploring ways we can add more digital value to the local journalism we’re already producing,” says Sawatzky. “Also, we’ve been surprised at the interest paying readers have shown in our local advice columnist, so we’re looking at ways we can expand on that.” 

“When we set out down the road to implement yet another version of a paywall, we did not set out to establish a micropayment system or to deliver a fully personalised news site,” says Free Press Publisher Bob Cox. “Those elements were simply tools in realising our main goal — to deliver the highest possible value, while lowering the barriers of entry to our readers.”