The paywall that San Francisco Chronicle flirted with for
years appeared over the weekend, accompanied by a euphemistic
letter from Chron president Mark Adkins. He characterized it as a safe harbor
for the paper's "premium content" (ie, news and columns) "uncluttered" by the
slideshows, celebrity gossip, and other link bait that clogs
While SFGate will remain free, retaining event listings, breaking
news, and staples like "Day in Pictures," the Chron's bread-and-butter news
will be reserved for subscribers only.
It's not the first time Chronicle brass tried to make a church-state separation between the grabby stuff that's geared for a general
audience and the more carefully crafted news that subscribers might actually
buy. In 2010, the paper tried a much more noncommittal version of the same
"premium content strategy," embargoing enterprise stories or lifestyle features
for several days before releasing them to the general public.
At that time the Chron was already spewing $50 million a year in losses and trying to stanch the blood with any band-aid solution that didn't threaten its web traffic -- including raising subscription rates and consolidating its bureaus. Many media analysts scratched their heads and wondered why the hard paywall idea had never come to fruition.
Although the Chron's consumer marketing director Michael Keith declined to comment, president Mark Adkins' letter to readers emphasizes the same "premium-vs.-general interest" distinction that the paper has played up for a long time, suggesting that this advanced version of "premium content" is the product of years of internal discussions.
The Houston Chronicle, the Washington Post, and Newsweek all erected paywalls in the interim. The New York Times set a gold standard for paywalls, reporting 640,000 subscribers by the end of the fourth quarter in 2012. A Pew Research Center Study showed that roughly one-third of the country's dailies have adopted digital pay plans, and that they're salvaging -- and sometimes increasing -- circulation revenues overall.
So by most measures, the Chron is a late adopter, even if it's pioneering the idea of paid content in the free-for-all Bay Area, where it competes daily with the SF Examiner, The Bay Citizen, three alt weeklies, and several blogs that all offer content for free, not to mention the wide reader base that relies solely on Twitter as a news aggregate. News analyst and former Chron employee Steve Outing also noted that the Chron has the unique disadvantage of being wedged right in the Silicon Valley, where digital start-ups spring up everyday.
That may explain why Chron management was so reluctant to block content behind a paywall, and why it seemed so weirdly diffident about the idea even after Sunday's "hard launch." SFGate.com was an amazing traffic generator, and some folks at the Chron might not have been ready to give that up. They've left a lot of carrots for readers, including free viewings of any article that's linked through social media channels, and three-paragraph-long teasers on the SFGate web site.
Outing says that's the way to go. "Leaky" paywalls occasionally get sneered at in the media, but they can also hook in new subscribers.