Can Engineers Design Better Paywalls For Local News Outlets?

  • by October 30, 2020
This week's announcement that The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News would switch from daily to weekly distributionnext year was the latest indication of the plight of local newspapers. Amid the declines in revenue from advertising and classifieds, paid subscriptions and paywalls have become more important ways for publishers to monetize their content.

The key challenge for local newspapers without the financial resources to support engineering teams is finding the know-how to develop more sophisticated methods of converting online readers into paid subscribers. The Brown Institute for Media Innovation, the joint project between Columbia Journalism School and Stanford Engineering, aims to make that technology more accessible with its new Local News Lab.

Its team includes journalists, engineers, data scientists and designers, and is seeking small- and medium-sized publishers to participate in a program to develop a "smart paywall." That means the paywall would be more adaptable to local publishers and their audiences.



"While the product will indeed be a gate to the content, the intention is for it to be flexible enough to offer newsrooms the ability to use it in a number of ways that may not have anything to do with money," according to a blog post. Still, a key goal is to help improve reader engagement and understand audience behavior while driving subscriptions, memberships or donations.

Innovation is needed among local publishers, with digital subscriptions rising from about 12% of total circulation in February 2019 to 17% a year later, according to Mather Economics, whose services include consulting on subscription management.

However, revenue hasn't kept pace with that growth in subscription volume, making up only 7% of total revenue among the publishers in Mather's database. With print circulation falling by at least 10% a year, publishers need to ramp up their digital circulation efforts.

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