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For new LA Times digital 'members' it pays to accept print

For new LA Times digital 'members' it pays to accept print

Today the Los Angeles Times goes live with its new "membership program". With a model similar to the New York Times metered paywall, the LA Times will give its readers 15 free stories a month, after which it will ask users to pay 99 cents for the first four weeks of digital access.

While this seems like a scheme to monetize digital, it focuses heavily on getting readers to continue with print. For one thing, digital access is free to print subscribers. Secondly, and more unusually, when the initial 99 cent rate expires, the LA Times will charge $1.99 a week for a package which includes digital access and its printed Sunday newspaper, or $3.99 a week for digital access only.

The LA Times is straight-forward about the reason that it is paying digital subscribers to accept the Sunday printed paper: "The Sunday edition of The Times has the most advertising and readership, making that the company's most profitable publication day," writes Jerry Hirsch in the paper's business section.

The LA Times is not the only paper to follow this model. In March last year an article by Joshua Benton for Nieman Lab described how The New York Times made it $65 cheaper per year for readers to subscribe to the Sunday paper, which comes with free digital access, than to sign up to its digital package. But while the NY Times might have set a precedent, the LA Times model, which makes it over twice as expensive not to accept a print paper, is a radical step.

The LA Times is moving even further to capitalized on the weekend print market; it has also just announced plans to launch a Saturday lifestyle section to be included in print subscriptions.

As the LA Times looks for new ways to make money, Hirsch puts its decision to charge for digital content in the context of others in the industry who are introducing paywalls, "intended to increase revenue and reverse a long slide in paid subscriptions for printed newspapers as more people go to the Internet for news". He points to The New York Times, The Washington Post and to Gannett, which announced two weeks ago that it would be launching paywalls around all its 80 publications, with the exception of USA Today.

However, the LA Times is wary of the "p" word. "Although digital payment plans are commonly known as "paywalls," The Times is billing its plan as a "membership program" that will include retail discounts, deals and giveaways, as well as access to digital news," writes Hirsch.

In an interview with Justin Ellis from Nieman Lab, the LA Times' senior vice president for digital Emily Smith explains that digital membership might include perks such as free or discounted LA Times books, or special access to the paper's events.

The paper may also try to capitalize on community feeling around its local subjects. Hirsch cites Kathy Thomson, president and chief operating officer of Los Angeles Times Media Group, who suggests that consumers might want to become members to benefit from the LA Times coverage of sports teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers and the USC Trojans, or of the Hollywood and entertainment industry.

As these ideas are thrown around, it seems clear that the LA Times plans to monetize digital content are by no means set in stone. According to Thompson, digital access through tablet and mobile devices is still free at the moment, but won't be so in the future. For now, it looks as if the LA Times is experimenting with using digital to shore up its print product, but as yet has not radically changed its model.

Sources: LA Times, Nieman Lab (1) (2), Media Bistro


Hannah Vinter


2012-03-05 18:17

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