Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

A Newspaper Pay Wall Goes Up–And So Do Visitor Numbers

The New York Times is getting ready to roll out a “metered model” pay wall in January, and plenty of people fret that the paper will see its audience disappear when the (porous) gates go up. Here’s a counterargument: The Telegram & Gazette.

In August, the Worcester, Mass., paper put up a Times-style pay wall: Visitors can read 10 “local” articles a month for free, but after that they need to pay up. It’s not a coincidence that the Telegram is using the same idea that the Times will try in a few months–the paper is one of several local titles owned by the Times itself.

So. How’s that Telegram doing since the wall went up?

Just great, Times CEO Janet Robinson said during the paper’s earnings call today: The Telegram’s metrics are “on plan,” and traffic hasn’t suffered.

In fact, Robinson said, the Times was pleasantly surprised to see that the Telegram’s unique visitors number had increased since the wall went up.

What’s that? I asked the Times for numbers to flesh that one out, but it declined. ComScore, though, does back Robinson up: The Web traffic counter says 281,000 U.S. unique visitors came by the Telegram in August, and that number crept up to 294,000 in September.

That’s a tiny bump, though comScore often has a difficult time measuring smaller sites. For comparison’s sake, note that the Telegram tells advertisers it reaches 700,000 uniques a month.

Still, a bump is a bump. And it’s certainly not the plummet that many people would expect. When the London Times put up a pay wall this summer, for instance, it saw traffic drop a reported 90 percent. (News Corp. owns both the London Times and this site.)

So how do we explain the Telegram’s increase? In the absence of input from the Times or the Telegram (I’ve asked both for comment), we have to speculate. Feel free to add your own in, but I can start with a few theories:

  • Maybe the Telegram had some particularly blog-friendly, Facebook-friendly or Google-friendly stories in September. If that’s the case, the metered model would work well for the site, since it encourages casual visitors to show up via referral, without having to pay up. For a relatively modest site like the Telegram, you wouldn’t need many high-traffic stories to push up its base number.
  • Or maybe it’s just as simple as a seasonal spike: Traffic numbers often droop in the summer, when people have better things to do than sit in front of their browsers, and then spike back up in the fall.

In any case, this should give the Times a bit of confidence about its strategy for the flagship paper, which it promises to tell us more about soon.

UPDATE: Some readers are having a hard time accepting Robinson’s assertions and comScore’s numbers.

I have no reason to think that Robinson, the Times or the Telegram made the data up. If you’re a conspiracist who thinks otherwise, you should note that the NYT wasn’t boasting about the data during the call, though Robinson did take time to read off a whole laundry list of digital accomplishments. It only came up in response to a question about the Telegram’s performance.

But different third-party analytics companies often reach different conclusions. So if you do want to look at a different data set, here’s one from Compete, via Jonathan Mendez. As you can see, it tells a very different story–a 20 percent drop from August to September (click to enlarge):

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