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Business and Economy

Maine's Largest Media Company Imposes Online Paywall

This week, readers of Maine Today Media, which includes the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Maine Sunday Telegram, are being advised that they can no longer access all their online content for free. They'll be able to access 10 stories before hitting what's known as a paywall - or, put another way, before they have to sign up for a subscription. It's a strategy more than half the newspapers in the country have undertaken as a way to boost revenues. 

Like many media companies, Maine Today has been giving away online content for free for 20 years. But - no surprise - this is not a sustainable business model, especially when there's a dearth of online advertising. And print alone can't pay the bills.

So CEO Lisa DeSisto says the company has come up with a strategy that it thinks will strike the right balance of revenue from consumers and advertisers. Some content will still be free, like the classifieds, for instance.

"If you're a non-subscriber, what you get access to is the homepage of our sites, our section fronts, blogs, photo galleries, video content and also obituaries," DeSisto says. "We wanted to keep obituaries available to all because there's alot of interest in it and it's important to get that information out there."

Readers will also always have access to 10 articles per month. After that, they'll have to subscribe to a package, online only or a combination of online and print. DeSisto says Maine Today is trying to make that as seamless as possible for home delivery customers. And so far, she says about 21,000 have signed up.

Sun Media Group, the publisher of the Lewiston Sun Journal, adopted a similar subscription model last December. And Steve Costello, vice president of marketing, says it's working well.

"Sixty percent of our print subscribers are what we now call 'all access' subscribers, meaning they've signed up for both digital and print. About 40 percent are still just print only and either haven't converted or have not come up for any sort of a renewal at this point," Costello says. "We've had very good adoption at this point in time."

But some large newspapers, such as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News, have abandoned the paywall strategy after an outcry from angry readers. Here in Maine, the Bangor Daily News is now the only daily newspaper without an online paywall. Todd Benoit, the BDN's vice president and CEO says the paper has pursued a different strategy - to grow the online audience by expanding digital products and increasing online advertising revenue.

"We're not opposed to looking at a paywall at some point. But, for now, I think this is a better strategy for us," Benoit says. "We may change our mind down the road, depending on how paywalls turn out. One thing that's important to note is that newspapers have been doing this for five or six years. And the paywalls themselves have changed quite a bit over time."

DeSisto says one of the big reasons some paywalls don't succeed is that the applications don't work well. Customers have trouble logging on with their user names and passwords or the systems are complicated and unreliable. She says that's why Maine Today has taken its time to implement the paywall. And it's phasing in readers this month with a special offer: pay just $1 for the next month and you can access everything online you want. After that, it will cost a little more.

"We were strategic about how we put pricing together," DeSisto says. "What we're really encouraging people to do is to get the Maine Sunday Telegram plus digital access, and that is just $8 a month. So, if you live anywhere where you can get the Telegram delivered to you, that's the best deal because the digital-only subscription is $9.99 a month."

Not surprisingly, DeSisto says some readers are upset about the change. But she says, if people value the service, they'll support the newspaper in much the same way that they do public radio.