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February 23, 2012

As Free Press Adopts Pay Wall, Vermont Media Landscape Shifts

In a move that’s sure to shift the media landscape in Vermont, the state’s largest daily newspaper, the Burlington Free Press, announced Thursday that it would start charging readers for online content later this year.

The Free Press’ parent company, Gannett, announced at an investor meeting Wednesday that all 80 of its community newspapers — but not its flagship property, USA Today — will limit readers’ access to between five and 15 articles per month, unless they purchase an online or print subscription.

“It’s a decision companywide, but you know it’s time we begin to charge for our content online,” Free Press publisher Jim Fogler said Thursday. “We’ve been giving it away for free. We should have done this a while ago.”

The pay wall is part of a “Triple Crown” of changes coming to 191 College Street, according to a company press release. The paper is rebuilding its 45-year-old printing press to the tune of $2.4 million, and it is shifting from a broadsheet format to a narrower, tabloid format. Fogler said he expects the new subscription model will launch when the press work is scheduled for completion this June.

“We’ve made a $2.4 million commitment to our community,” Fogler said. “We’re not going anywhere.

In an effort to bolster its online offerings, the Free Press purchased 18 iPhones for its reporters last week. Fogler hopes to turn Free Press reporters into “mobile journalists” — or “Mo-Jos,” as he calls them. At the same time, employees each have been forced to take one-week, unpaid furloughs this quarter, as they did last year.

“I will tell you, I’d much rather take a furlough, including myself, than to go through a round of layoffs,” Fogler said.

The Free Press is not the first newspaper in Vermont to experiment with charging online readers for content. The Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, which are owned by the same family, began charging online-only readers $2.99 a week or $1 a day in October 2010.

Unlike the Herald and Times Argus, which keep most of their material behind pay walls, the Free Press plans to institute a “metered” system, allowing occasional readers to access a limited amount of content for free every month. The New York Times adopted a metered system last year, letting readers view 20 articles a month before paying. Fogler said the Free Press is still deciding how many articles would trigger the paper’s pay wall, but that it would fall within the companywide range of five to 15.

David Mindich, who chairs the journalism department at St. Michael’s College, said that while the jury is still out about the efficacy of pay walls in general, they make less sense for smaller papers that offer content similar to what other news outlets provide for free.

“I tend to be skeptical of pay walls on a local level,” he said. “You’re going to have free content trying to fill in the gaps whenever you have pay walls. It’s a paradox, because we need good journalism in this state and everywhere, and we need to pay good journalists to dig, to hold government accountable, write [Freedom of Information Act] requests and risk lawsuits. Good journalism is expensive.”

For the Free Press to successfully compete online with free offerings, it will have to offer content unavailable elsewhere, Mindich argued.

“It’s kind of like that old thing that mothers would tell their daughters: Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” he said.

Vermont has seen a proliferation of different models for generating online news revenue in recent years. The Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner, which are owned by the national MediaNews Group chain, adopted a metered system last year that restricts nonpaying readers from accessing more than five articles per month.

Some papers, such as the Addison Independent and Caledonian Record, offer a sample of articles for free but charge for complete online access. The Valley News, meanwhile, offers its top stories online for free but restricts the rest of its content to the print edition.

At the same time, several nonprofit news outlets have expanded, allowing readers to access much or all of their content online — and for free. Vermont Public Radio has increased both its newsroom staff and online offerings, while the Commons, a nonprofit weekly based in Brattleboro, recently bolstered its editorial and advertising staff and increased its web presence. The state hosts a number of blogs, like the left-leaning Green Mountain Daily and the right-leaning Vermont Tiger, which provide a mix of opinion, analysis and occasional reporting.

Anne Galloway, a former Times Argus editor who founded the nonprofit, online-only, says that while she wishes the Free Press luck, she believes the move will likely send web traffic to sites such as her own.

“I can’t help but think that the free sites will benefit just because people don’t like to pay if they don’t have to,” she said, noting that the necessity to enter a password can serve as a deterrent even to those who would be willing to pay for content.

VTDigger focuses on public policy and state government, which has long been the bread and butter of the Times Argus’ and Herald’s statehouse news service, the Vermont Press Bureau. When those papers erected a pay wall in 2010, Galloway says, she noticed an uptick in traffic to VTDigger.

I’m still getting more readers because of the pay wall, but I can’t really quantify it,” she said.

To pay for its journalism, VTDigger has adopted a model Galloway says is similar to that of Vermont Public Radio. The Vermont Journalism Trust, a nonprofit that publishes VTDigger, relies on a combination of reader donations, grants and sponsorships. It also derives a small portion of its revenue from content-supplying arrangements with the Caledonian Record and Vermont Business Magazine.

Cracks in the Times Argus’ and Rutland Herald’s pay wall emerged in recent weeks as the papers launched a new, free website for the Vermont Press Bureau, which appears to offer much of the papers’ statehouse news coverage without charge. State editor Rob Mitchell did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Fogler acknowledged that the Free Press’ new subscription model would likely reduce traffic in the short term, but he believes it will strengthen the paper in the long term.

“I think in the beginning we will see a dip, but I think if we continue to stay the course and provide our readers news and information — how, when and where they want it — I think we’ll continue to win in that space,” he said.

The Free Press website drew 768,000 unique visitors in January, generating 6.5 million page views, Fogler said.

According to Audit Bureau of Circulation report, the paper’s Sunday print circulation dropped from 52,000 in October 2006 to 40,700 in October 2011. The Herald’s Sunday circulation similarly dropped from 18,700 to 14,200 during that period.

Media and marketing consultant Martin Langeveld, a former publisher at the Brattleboro Reformer, said that while the pay-wall model is not a good fit for papers the size of the Free Press, the company’s investment in its printing press makes sense. He said it would allow the company to “in-source” the printing operations of newspapers throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.

“I think it’s actually pretty smart,” Langeveld said. “There’s no doubt they’re looking at being a regional hub for a lot of newspapers.”

Fogler said that aside from the Time Argus, which the Free Press briefly contracted to print last year when the former paper’s printing press flooded, the company has “not been aggressive in our commercial printing because our press is 45 years old.”

As to whether he had locked in any potential customers for the new press, he said, “Not yet, but we will be soliciting those shortly.”


Disclaimer: I work for a free, online newspaper, which you happen to
be reading. I also used to work for Langeveld at the Brattleboro

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