local media insider
Case study

Metered model at the Augusta Chronicle so far (so good)

Alisa Cromer
The meter ain't what it used to be. Deployed by FT.com with huge success, the model is now being copied by an increasing number of local media sites with original news content.

Media: The Augusta Chronicle
Circulation: 70,000
Site: http://chronicle.augusta.com/
Traffic: UV's 700,000, 8 million page views
Owner: Morris Communications
Key executives: Jodie Bell, Director of Advertising; Alan English, Executive Editor; Jeff Hartley, VP Circulation for The Chronicle and  Publishing and  executives at Morris Digital Works

Challenge: The Augusta Chronicle had determined to move towards paid content, and a desired to develop paid iPad apps provided the the last push. The willingness of people to pay for apps underscored the "mistake we made years ago" in not charging for content online.

Also, the metered model approach allowed the ability to slide into paid content in a way that would not immediately shut down readership. As VP of advertising Jodie Bell, a key member of the executive planning team, puts it, when paid content came up, she was initially concerned about impact on advertising.

"Once we knew it wasn't all of nothing, we have controls, monitor and "meter" we all felt more comfortable."

Strategy: The first decision was to charge for online content first, then move towards paid apps. The paid model went live in December, 2009, with  Executive editor Alan English as a key evangelist; "Give them something worth paying for" became the new editorial mantra. 

Here's a basic break down of the new strategy:

*The initial strategy separated content in to free and paid buckets. Free pages include obits, classifieds, late breaking, section fronts, multimedia, photo galleries,blogs, social media buttons and wire service.

*The metered threshold for the rest of the content was originally set at 100 pages a month before a user was charged - a number that most users never reached. It was lowered until there was an impact" on sales, that meant from 100 page views allowed before charging down to 25 page views, to 20 to 10 by in July, 2011. Scripts and cookies track the users. A URL schema is use to set what content does and does not tick the meter.

*There are three splash pages in overlay pop-up format: Welcome, Warning and Stop. The last page asks for a credit cards. Users can pay monthly or annually. This is very similar to the interface (see examples of overlays here) and model used by Dow Jones.

*For print subscribers, subscriptions to online are $2.95 a month or $6.95 for online-only subs that includes all of the electronic editions. Annual pricing is not available yet, but discussions include a rate of  $19.95 for print subscribers and $89.95 for non-print subscribers.

*A number of communication devices aided in informing the market well in advance:

-Two columns, one by the editor and one by the publisher, in the paper explaining the program

-Online FAQ

-Comment section for anonymous comment interactions

There were 150 "very mixed" responses in the comments section. The editor also fielded phone calls with a specific pitch:

"How much would you pay to have your favorite journalist or columnist "watch-dogging city hall? Would you buy him or her a cup of coffee each month?"

The company expected a loss of 7 to 10% of page views and achievement of $100,000 in annualized new revenues (typically, a 2% of paid circulation - 70,000 in this case - uptake is common for online only subscriptions).


1. The effect on traffic has been negligible.  The first six months was up Year over Year, through there was a concurrent unrecoverable server crash that affected page views.  photo archive. In December, 2010, traffic was up 6%. Year to year traffic for the first six months of 2011 was up 2 to 11%.

2.  Paid online subscriptions approaching 1000 by August 2011.  Within the first six months, the increase in revenues roughly offset the cost of two full time reporters.

3. A side benefit is collecting information on the new online subscribers. "Our plan is to charge more for banners as a result of knowing more about them."

4. Sell-through rates for advertising has remained constant at about 60 to 65%.

5. Acquisition of paid apps from the 10,000 current downloads on iPad (interactive PDF and iPhone). More Morris markets may move onto paid platforms in december 2011.

Lessons learned:

"A core internal belief is that placing a value on the content is more important than any penny we'lll collect. The value proposition on digital content begins a new relationship with our new and next-generation consumers."

The metered model has a number of strengths:  a. Flexibility rather than an "all or nothing approach." Dow Jones has been working with a maximum of 20 stories free in its local markets, so its interesting to see a market move down to 10 stories without seeing an effect on uptake. b. "Fly-by" traffic, ie search traffic visiting just once a month, is still allowed to "flow through" the site, keeping numbers up for display advertisers and c. Data-collection on subscribers is currently under-valued and under-utlized at most newspaper companies. This is a key asset in the future. 

Regarding the interface: Two things the Chronicle does right including using overlays to inform and take subscriptions and including a subscribe button inside the navigation bar.  This button could even be a different color to pop-out, and lead to page that has no other content (all the navigation bars, display ads and daily deals off) to enhance sign-ups from viistors who wind up there. 

Resources: A key element in moving forward was confidence in a metered model platform via Press+ (formerly journalism.com, since acquired by Donnelly).

Many thanks to the executives at Morris Communications for sharing their experience with out members and to the Suburban Newspaper Association for including this case study in their Fall Publishers and Ad Directors Conference. 

Alisa Cromer

The author, Alisa Cromer is publisher of a variety of online media, including LocalMediaInsider and  MediaExecsTech,  developed while on a fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute and which has evolved into a leading marketing company for media technology start-ups. In 2017 she founded Worldstir.com, an online magazine,  to showcases perspectives from around the  world on new topic each month, translated from and to the top five languages in the world.

paid content, augusta, belle, metered