Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Just how porous is the Star's paywall?

Posted By on Tue, Feb 25, 2014 at 4:08 PM

Just a few of the devices through which you can read Star articles without paying a dime.
  • Just a few of the devices through which you can read Star articles without paying a dime.
It's been about 15 months since The Kansas City Star implemented Star Plus, the paywall that requires online readers to pony up for unlimited access on their computers, tablets and phones. We're subscribers here at The Pitch. We think the paywall is a good idea. For metropolitan dailies like the Star, it is basically the only idea at this point. Print revenues are declining, and revenues from online advertising are nowhere near enough to make up the difference. To carry out the kind of comprehensive journalism a daily paper ought to, charging for subscriptions is a must.

For the past several months, though, I've heard from several people who believe the Star has dropped its paywall. "I look at, on average, 20 articles a day on the Star's site," a friend told me. "I used to bump into the Star Plus prompt regularly, telling me I'd hit my limit of 10 articles a month. But I haven't seen that in at least three months."

So I called the Star's reader representative, Derek Donovan, who explained that the paper's paywall is intentionally porous. "Everyone gets some unmetered content," Donovan said. "Nothing we share on social media is metered. The Plus program is still in place, but there's all sorts of porous ways to access content, and that's intentional."

Donovan suggested that I talk to Rhonda Prast, the Star's assistant managing editor for digital. She said the Plus program is still going and emphasized that it's been very successful. "We've had 10 percent growth in local uniques," Prast told me. "We've increased digital-only subscriptions. And we're continuing to make upgrades to the site." She said she'd heard nothing about abandoning the paywall.

But if the Star had decided to secretly drop its paywall - as the San Francisco Chronicle did last fall, after only four months - it's very unlikely anybody at the paper would tell little old me. So I decided to conduct some experiments on my own. I headed over to the home of a different, nonsubscribing friend who said he tears through dozens of Star articles a week with no repercussions. I grabbed his laptop, ventured over to the Star's homepage, and started clicking on articles. On the 11th try, I was surprised to see the Star Plus prompt, informing me that I would need to subscribe to view any more articles this month. (I could, of course, still kind of read all subsequent articles - the Plus pop-up doesn't completely block out the articles. You can scroll down slowly and read them in their entirety. It's just kind of annoying and slow.)

Later in the day, I went over to my folks' house and did the same thing. And after 10 rapid-fire clicks on articles, I again hit the Star Plus prompt. My dad, who takes the print version but has never signed up for digital, mentioned that, once, when browsing online at work, he hit the paywall prompt. So instead he Googled "Kansas City Star Sports," clicked through to the paper's sports vertical, and accessed the article he was looking for. That was six months ago, he said, and he hasn't seen the prompt since.

So I tried the same thing. I Googled "Kansas City Star Missouri Basketball" and clicked through to the story I wanted to read, no problem. I then proceeded to read more than 30 Star articles, in sports and other sections, with no paywall threats. I stopped only because I got bored.

Still, I was surprised that so many regular online Star readers would have told me that they were certain the paper had dropped the wall, when my research indicated that it was still alive and kicking. I suspect this has to do with the fact that, like me, most of the readers I spoke to invariably access the Star through social media. The paper tweets somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 stories a day. So if you are one of the Star's 52,000 followers on Twitter, you can read all those stories, on your phone or laptop, for free. Same with the 28,000 users who like it on Facebook.

Given that more and more people use Twitter and Facebook as their curatorial portal to the Internet (and that social-media traffic to news sites has increased 57 percent since 2009), how long is it before subscribers figure out that they really don't need to pay the $110 the Star is asking annually for full access to its site, as long as they have a Twitter handle? Granted, no news organization can afford to live in a fortress online; certain stories - the kind with the potential to draw big traffic through widespread sharing - should be easy to access and pass around on social media. But right now, the Star's Plus program is less like a wall and more like a screen door with a broken lock. That's good for people who want to read free articles all day. But I would imagine that unless more people are compelled to cough up the dough to subscribe online, the paper's coverage will only continue to shrink over the long term.


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