24 Jun 2019

Paying for online news

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 24 June 2019

The days when all your news was free on the internet are changing. The NZ Herald is now charging for premium content - and there are plenty of people willing to pay for good journalism.

The Herald's premium team: Murray Kirkness, Shayne Currie, Miriyana Alexander.

The Herald's premium team: Murray Kirkness, Shayne Currie, Miriyana Alexander. Photo: supplied NZ Herald

At the end of April, New Zealand’s biggest newspaper started charging for some of its content.

Small, yellow squares now sit on the icons of some Herald articles which, when clicked on, require the would-be reader to pay to continue.

Annual subscriptions cost $199, or readers can pay $5 per week to access the premium content. For the first couple of months the Herald is offering a discounted rate; half price access, as a sweetener to get people on board.

The marketing push seems to be working. Within six weeks, 10,000 people have subscribed to the Herald’s premium content. 10,000 is also the paper’s first-year goal, so in the words of editor Murray Kirkness, “we’re obviously thrilled”.

“I think people now understand that if you want something you now have to pay. For a long time in the digital world that perhaps wasn’t the case.

“In the news sense, no matter where you look around the world – certainly in the western world – it’s now almost the norm to have some paywalled content rather than it all being free,” he says.

Asking readers to pay for content which was previously given away is a bold move, and one not without risk.

Communications lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, Merja Myllylahti, says the New Zealand Herald risks turning readers to their biggest digital competitor, Stuff.

In fact, the first full month of digital news websites' audience numbers since the paywall was introduced shows the Herald dipping and Stuff gaining in both unique viewers and page views.

Myllylahti says the early sign ups bode well for the paywall, but the Herald will need to keep a close eye on the numbers over the next couple of months.

“I was surprised – I actually put out a tweet and said, ‘this is impressive.’

“It’s encouraging early signs, but we have to be careful because when that two month offer runs out, a lot of people might have taken that offer for two months, and then they might drop out.”

Just over a third of the current 10,000 subscribers signed up for a whole year, leaving two thirds paying per-week.

“We’re obviously aware of churn, and that’s something that any subscription model has to deal with every day,” says Kirkness.

“Of course, we’ve had subscribers for a very long time in terms of print… so we’re well used to managing that business arrangement.”

The Herald has opted for a soft paywall, so most of its stories remain free to readers. However, in New Zealand and around the world newsrooms are trialling other models too.

Newsroom.co.nz, for example, has both paywalled content in its Newsroom Pro section, as well as asking for donations to continue its journalism. The National Business Review requires readers to subscribe to read its content.

Internationally, the New York Times and Washington Post let readers view a set number of articles a month before bringing up the paywall. Like Newsroom, the Guardian newspaper - which is run by a charitable trust - asks readers to support its journalism by making donations. 

Photo: RNZ