Telegraph Herald’s move to paywall bumps revenue, digital subscribers

by Mike Newland        

After much discussion, move to a paywall business model adds 1,000 new digital-only subscriptions and brings in US$70,000 in revenue.

Click the image to view a larger versionThe Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa, is a small, employee-owned newspaper with a circulation of 27,350 Monday through Saturday and 31,381 on Sunday. Dubuque is a unique market in that we are located at the intersection of three states — Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin —  and we have the good fortune to be 75 miles away from our closest competing daily newspaper.
Like most of you, we had an open access Web site, and there were some who believed that this openness drove readership and circulation. As a circulator and receiver of many phone calls, I disagreed with this assumption and had long advocated that we have some sort of paywall. 
As luck would have it — and after much debate — we finally launched a paywall in June of 2011. Our paywall restricted news, special sections, and obituaries. Yes, obituaries. Everything else remained open access.
With the launch of our paywall, we finally had the opportunity to provide real and meaningful subscription bundles to our subscribers. 
Of course, we had bundles and packages prior to this. But in my opinion, they were really meaningless. We took advantage of the ABC rules and counted all the digital readers we legally could, as did most newspapers, but what did these numbers really mean? 
It was like, “Hey, subscribe to our weekend print package and get Monday through Friday online. Not that you couldn’t get it anyway for free, but if I charge you 25% more, I can count you twice ….”
The paywall meant there would be a log-in. And that meant I could attach a name, household, and demographics to real people — not an IP address. This makes our advertising much more valuable and effective.
When we launched, we made the conscious decision to bundle Web, e-edition, and mobile access for our seven-day print subscribers. We wanted to promote the value of seven-day print and make it easy for our most valuable subscribers to access, and perhaps transition to, our digital platform. 
Doing so positions us in the future to add a digital fee to only those seven-day print subscribers who regularly use our digital product. For our weekend and Sunday-only subscribers, the aforementioned content was restricted, and a bundled or digital-only subscription was required.
It has now been more than a year since we launched our paywall, and here is what I know:
  1. First, we have added 1,000 digital-only subscriptions that have generated US$70,000 in revenue that went straight to the bottom line.
  2. More than 8,000 (or 42%) of our seven-day print subscribers have linked their print subscriptions online for all-digital access, 400 of our weekend/Sunday-only subscribers have upgraded to a print and online bundle. 
  3. My home deliver number has flattened and my non-pay stops have been cut in half, which, of course, lessens my start pressure and sales budget. 
  4. Online revenue has increased. 
  5. While pageviews and unique visitors went down initially, they are now above what they were prior to launch.

Of course, there are things that we would have done differently, but my advice to anyone reading this is that if you wait to act until you are 100% ready, you will never act. 

Go forward with what is good for your business and your clients.

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