Should we offer free online subscriptions?
Soon after we started charging for access to our website, the requests for free subscriptions started right in. This was not something we had anticipated and we needed to quickly pull together a logical and consistent response.
The requests came from places such as the local libraries, non-profit groups, and local advertisers. Even The Associated Press asked if they could get a pass around the paywall.
Each request was based on logical assumptions. Some were also based on a level of misunderstanding about our pay structures. In the end, we granted no free subscriptions, and almost every person who made the request said they felt comfortable with that decision.
Our response was based upon the idea that we offer no free subscriptions to our print edition. Advertisers might receive a tearsheet as a proof of their ad running. But we don’t give them the entire edition, much less a subscription.
I would encourage anyone moving to a paywall approach to develop a philosophy or policy for such requests before launch.
Here is how we handled some of these requests:
The local libraries all need to buy copies of our newspaper. Additionally, they do not expect to get a free pass to the New York Times or Atlantic Monthly or any other online publication that charges. We saw no business advantage to giving this access away to the libraries. However, if they choose to purchase a subscription and make that available to their patrons, that would be fine. Again, this mimics the traditional model.
We offer access to our e-edition to every school district under our Newspapers In Education program. This effectively allows every student in the county to see the replica edition of our newspaper at no cost.
If a school wants to provide copies of our newspaper in the library or staff lunchroom or in classrooms, the school must pay for print delivery.
Likewise, a paid subscription to the website is needed.
We received a letter from an irate doctor who pointed out that he provides us much money through his advertisements. That, he said, should entitle him to a free online subscription. Furthermore, he said, we should provide him two free copies of our newspaper since he puts those out in his two waiting rooms every day.
I pointed out that the ads are not a gift he offers us. Rather, he pays for a valuable service which, it turn, helps him build his customer base. Also, our healthy subscription base, both in print and online, is part of what gives him the confidence that he is reaching a valuable and extensive audience. The print copies he places in his waiting rooms are items of value that he provides his customers to put them at ease.
All of this seemed to make sense to the doctor, as his response was simply to ask for information about subscribing to our e-edition. I don’t know if he also bought an online subscription.
Initially, someone at the AP made a very polite request for a free subscription, explaining that they acquire most of what they use from us from our websites. Before we could get back with a response, we heard from a top editor there that the AP had begun subscribing to any sites it needed to. So the request became moot.
We had decided, though, that we would ask AP to subscribe. Our contract did not require free access to our site. Furthermore, we had no practical method for providing free access to such an organization.
That last point — the mechanics of all of this — stands to be the ultimate reason at this time for requiring payment from everyone. The technology currently offered by Press+ is not designed for exceptions to the payment requirement.
However, we are not inclined to push the vendor to solve this “problem,” as we have found logic in asking everyone to subscribe for unlimited access to our web-based content.