By Bill Densmore
RUTLAND, Vt., Feb. 4, 2011 — Converting a formerly free news website to hybrid free and subscription service is judged an early success by the family owner of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus — and the ability of Clickshare to offer user-friendly, multi-platform registration, subscription, billing and access control is a key reason.
Paid online subscribers are above projections and reached the high-end of industry norms in less than four months, says Rob Mitchell, state editor of the combined-20,000-circulation dailies and the third-generation in the Mitchell’s family ownership of the two papers.
“As a subscription engine it’s worked out very well because it technically works very well,” Mitchell says of Clickshare.
Clickshare’s solution went live for the family’s customers on Oct. 1, and since then a total of 28,200 people have registered online for free, including readers from the Mitchell family’s four monthly regional business magazines (circulation about 40,000). “Some of them we would not have been able to connect with if it weren’t for this system,” says Mitchell, who heads the family’s online and mobile news delivery efforts.
Clickshare manages a single database for the papers and for four monthly business magazines operated by the Mitchell family as Vermont Community Media. The Clickshare technology handles one-account, one-ID, one-bill authentication and login of print subscribers and users on the web, mobile and soon-to-launch tablet applications. So readers and users can manage all access and billing from a single account.
“The business monthlies had never been integrated with our daily subscriptions,” says Mitchell. “Now they are, and this produces more activity for them online, and we can also market across all platforms.” In addition, the single sign on, single-account solution means Mitchell will be able to offer a variety of multiplatform subscription packages and bundles.
The family is following the emerging practice of a hybrid free-paid approach on the web.
Of the 28,200 registered users, about 7,500 are existing subscribers to the print dailies, who signed up to get free access to the newspaper’s web site. The other registrants have signed up for one of a variety of online and print packages, which may include some or all of the print newspaper, the web site, a new online e-Edition, and the mobile site.
Paid online subscribers are above projections, said Mitchell. He said his father, Publisher R. John Mitchell, had figured online paid subscribers would settle at around 2-3 percent of print circulation after a year. The actual number tracked after a little more than four months as 950 – already at 4.7 percent.
“My father surveyed the prices people were charging across the country and we basically took our print price and gave probably a 30-percent discount off that to make it attractive both to people who had discontinued their print subscription and to new subscribers,” says Mitchell.
The online annual subscription works out to $2.99 a week, says Mitchell. The minimum subscription length online – a month – works out to about $3.50 a week. A day pass – which Clickshare’s technology supports – is a dollar.
Mitchell says they’ll have to do some survey work to see how many of the 600 paying subscribers online are former print subscribers – they don’t know that yet. “A significant portion of them are either outside our print-delivery area or out of state,” says Mitchell. “That’s encouraging.”
As for print circulation and web advertising, Mitchell says: “We’re doing well. I think the paywall is helping us. I think we’ve benefited by being willing to take this step.” Mitchell thinks online advertisers will view registered and paid subscribers as more valuable than casual surfers. And, after three months of decline in web traffic – page views and daily visitors – the traffic trended back up in January, and showed an increase in online reader engagement.
“We will continue to market our online content as worth paying for, and do the newsgathering that will back up that promise,” Mitchell said. “And many of our readers have told us they are confident and happy that we are building a business model that will sustain our journalism well into the future.”