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When Oklahoma State University’s Daily O’Collegian launched its paywall in early 2011, it became the first college news outlet to charge readers for access to its online content. Today, the newspaper has about 500 digital subscribers reading articles at ocolly.com.

General manager Ray Catalino said when he approached Press+ (“an e-commerce platform that helps publishers implement flexible subscription models,” according to its website) the company hadn’t reached out to college newsrooms yet, even though it was leading the charge for paywall strategies among professional newspapers.

Catalino said erecting a paywall was a way to not only generate additional revenue, but to teach student journalists the value of their website content. “Instead of just dumping stories on there, I wanted to show them people will pay for it, so they had to take (the website) seriously,” he said. “It trained students to put up new things on a regular basis and taught them their content is valuable.”

In its first year, annual digital subscriptions were $10. The following year it increased to $15. It is currently offered at $20, and Catalino doesn’t expect it to go any higher. Subscribers who choose to renew are locked-in at the price they came in at. Students and faculty can view stories online at no charge (the print product is offered for free on campus). As a benefit to the general public and advertisers, anyone within a 25-mile radius can also view the website free. Anyone outside that radius is prompted to subscribe after three free page views.

Catalino said his goal was to get 100 paid subscriptions the first year; he received 156. His goal is to see 100 new subscriptions a year. Since it launched, Catalino said the paywall has brought in $5,000 worth of subscriptions.

“The time was right when we set it up,” he said.

When the paywall debuted, Catalino said he saw few complications and there wasn’t much of a drop in website traffic. “The environment now is different compared to three years ago,” he said. “People are more used to paying for subscriptions.”

His newsroom personnel have also learned some lessons on what their readers want, such as publishing exclusive web content or creating more interactive, fun sections.

While other college newspapers may prompt readers to donate to their websites, Catalino said he doesn’t want to go down the donation route. Having readers have to pay for access stresses value, he explained.

According to Catalino, the O’Colly will move toward an online emphasis starting this fall as its print product goes from being published fives time a week to three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) and the paper will transition from a broadsheet into a tab format. With this new strategy, the paper’s paywall will surely be front and center.              

Although professional newspapers may still feel skeptical about paywalls, Catalino believes they work. “If there’s a dedicated audience who sees its value, there is a willingness to pay for information online,” he said.

Comments

Fantasy

John K. Hartman | Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Paywalls are a flop and a fantasy except at New York Times and Wall Street Journal. $10,000 is a drop in the bucket for a big university's student newspaper. Please do not write out-of-context articles. Student newspapers are tanking because students do not read them much anymore ... in any form and advertisers caught on.

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