Small Papers Lead the Way on Paywalls

New survey says bigger papers charge less often for online content

The New York Times paywall may have grabbed all the headlines over the past month, but the real story in online journalism appears to have been buried beneath the fold:  It turns out small newspapers are taking the lead in charging for online content.

The University of Missouri School of Journalism recently interviewed hundreds of daily newspaper publishers and found that 46 percent of papers with a circulation under 25,000 per week say they charge for at least some of their online content. By contrast, only a quarter (24 percent) of newspapers with a circulation of more than 25,000 charge for any content.

If one of those is your hometown rag, don't get complacent just yet. A third (35 percent) of the papers that don’t currently charge say they have plans to do so, and another 50 percent “may begin charging at some point.” (Fifteen percent of those polled say that they had no plans to put up any sort of paywall.)

“Usually, you think the big boys will lead the way,” says the j-school's Michael Jenner. “There was so much build-up to The New York Times’ pay model and when they finally rolled it out a lot of people in the industry were watching that. But it wasn’t like the smaller newspapers were waiting for the Times to get its act together … Small papers are more nimble.”

Nimble or no, the survey also found that smaller papers are less likely to jump on the mobile bandwagon. Only 25 percent of those small newspapers surveyed have a phone app (compared to 62 percent of big newspapers), and only 9 percent of small papers have a tablet app (compared to 39 percent of large dailies).

Interestingly, 60 percent of publishers expect digital revenue to represent more than 15 percent of their papers’ total revenue stream in three years.

The vast majority of those papers polled—77 percent—had circulations under 25,000, meaning that the survey was skewed in that direction, according to Ken Fleming at the Universality of Missouri. (Fleming also said that this was because the research team had much more luck getting small paper publishers on the phone.) 

But Jenner pointed out that nationally, there are many more small papers than large papers, and that the survey results still gave an accurate depiction of the market. As for whether the pay-walls will help stanch the bleeding, Jenner said “It’s not going to offset their print revenue losses. It may be a trickle, but at least it’s a stream of something.”