Anniston Star launching online subscription plan
by Daniel Gaddy
dgaddy@annistonstar.com
Apr 10, 2013 | 10372 views |  0 comments | 68 68 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Anniston Star will move to a paid-subscription model for its website starting May 1 — a move Star managers say will strengthen and expand the quality of news coverage it produces.

Readers who don’t buy subscriptions will still have some access to AnnistonStar.com. The new model will allow online readers seven free page views per month before prompting them to subscribe.

The Star is offering a promotional rate for its digital subscription, charging 99 cents for the first month. Afterward, digital customers will pay $3 per week, which includes access to Anniston Star content on any Internet-enabled device.

A combined print and digital subscription will cost $3.33 per week. A print-digital package will cost $1 per month more than a traditional print subscription.

Bob Davis, editor and associate publisher of The Star, said the change is part of a national trend of newspapers — about 400 in the last two years — that are asking readers to pay for online content.

“Newspapers are the indispensable agents of democracy, and that's the most important thing our subscribers are paying for,” Davis said.

Robert Jackson, The Star’s vice president for sales and operations, said it has become evident that if The Star is to continue to produce the quality journalism for which it is recognized nationally, the readers will have to share in the expense.

“The question we’ve asked ourselves over and over that eventually led to the decision we've made is, ‘If you can go online and get most of what we produce for free, why would readers continue to pay for it?’” Jackson said.

Dennis Dunn, operations manager for The Star, said he believes the change reflects what should have been done all along.

“We deliver a valuable product,” he said. “I think it just reflects the value of that product.”

Jackson said The Star will run full-page print advertisements to inform readers that the daily cost to produce the paper’s news content is approximately $20,000.

“We make a significant investment in high-quality journalism and local content every day,” he said.

Davis added The Star will expand the content available online once the subscription-based model is in place. He said that currently, only a select number of articles make it online. Starting May 1, however, every story produced by The Anniston Star will be available online the moment it is ready for publication.

Consolidated Publishing, which publishes The Star, also owns five other newspapers in the region. Websites for three of the company’s weekly newspapers which share reporters with The Star — The Jacksonville News, The Piedmont Journal and The Cleburne News — will be affected by the change announced today.

Davis also stressed that The Star’s management have no plans to reduce the frequency of the newspaper’s print editions. In October the newspaper eliminated its Monday print edition.

The reason for the shift is simple: Print advertising — the lifeblood of any newspaper — is in decline, while online advertising, though rising slightly in popularity, is worth a fraction of its print counterpart.

Mike Jenner, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri who has researched newspapers’ adoption of paywalls, said there was a time in the 1990s when journalists assumed they would build an audience on the Internet and their online revenue would equate to print.

“It’s just not worked out that way,” he said.

Jenner said at least half the newspapers in the country have erected some form of paywall, and he expects that trend to continue.

The metered-access model used by The Star was pioneered by the The New York Times. However, Jenner said smaller, home-owned newspapers like The Star have been particularly bold to make the jump into paid-content models.

“Smaller papers, they've got a little bit more of a moat around them because they don't have as much competition,” he said.

The model seems to be working out for those who make the jump.

Gannett has installed paywalls in 78 of its U.S. newspapers in 2012. The company announced in February that its circulation revenue for the final quarter of 2012 increased by 9.3 percent when compared to the same quarter the year before. According to a press release from the company, the increase is primarily due to the rollout of the subscription-based model, and it represents the third quarter in a row of increased circulation revenue.

The Newspaper Association of America found similar results in a study of data from 330 U.S. newspapers published by 17 companies. The group’s profile of the companies found an increase of 5 percent in circulation revenue in 2012 compared to the previous year. The uptick marked the first gain in that category for the newspaper industry since 2003. The association also found that digital-only circulation revenue grew 275 percent while print and digital bundled circulation revenue grew 499 percent.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, said subscription-based Web models typically create growth in circulation revenue with relatively few negative consequences. However, he said, newspapers do usually see a decrease in page views with metered-access models like The Star. He also said the higher rates of digital and print-plus-digital subscriptions are often a one-time event and hard to sustain.

Edmonds said subscription-based models have three major benefits for newspaper websites:

- They acclimate readers to the idea that content is valuable.

- They reduce the jolt to the newspaper that comes with readers jumping on to a new format, such as tablet computers or smartphones.

- They stress to journalists that because people are paying for it, the content should be worthwhile.

Davis said H. Brandt Ayers, publisher of The Star, put it well when he described the newspaper as a public utility, meaning that is an indispensable part of everyday life. When one flips a light switch, Davis said, one expects the light to come on. And when one picks up the newspaper or logs on to AnnistonStar.com, he expects the latest news, features and commentary regarding east Alabama.

“Our aim is to ensure that this valuable journalism continues and in fact expands even more into the digital realm,” Davis said. “However, we couldn't expect the light to stay on if we don't pay the bill. The same applies to this newspaper.”

Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @DGaddy_Star.

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