Paton: Too Early To Say Whether MediaNews Paywalls Stay Up

Journal Register CEO John Paton has been a vocal opponent of using paywalls to increase digital revenue for newspapers, as have his advisory board members Jeff Jarvis, Emily Bell and Jay Rosen. But what happens now that he is also the CEO of MediaNews Group, which already has more than two dozen paywall experiments running, and running a new company that manages both? At least for the short term, paywalls stay, he told paidContent. Our brief e-mail interview about paywalls and his reaction to the recent MediaNews Bay Area consolidation is below.

What happens to the MediaNews paywalls? It is too early for me to figure the future of Media News Group’s paywall experiment. They have just started and I have to come up to speed on their rationale for launching and criteria for judging success.

Is there a chance you could wind up deciding paywalls — or at least trials of them — make sense in some places while staying away from them at JR? It is possible but clearly I would have to be convinced paywalls are worth management’s time in pursuing and that they are part of a comprehensive strategy to grow audience.

Were you aware of the Bay Area consolidation (from 11 newspapers to two) and do you approve? Will you change it at all? I was not made aware of the Bay Area consolidation prior to that initiative. Again, I have to come up to speed on the rationale before making a comment.

What is the single greatest change MediaNews needs to make to be digital first and how do you go about it? The single biggest challenge at Media News Group – is the same that exists at any newspaper company – culture change. To understand the nature of how news is created and consumed today and what role journalists and newsroom play in the new news ecology.

Using Press +, MediaNews launched metered paywalls — digital subscription required after five free pages a month — at 23 of its papers last month. Unlike the New York Times or some other papers, digital access isn’t bundled with print. Instead, print subs get a discount of $1.99 per month or $19.99 per year for online access, while non-print subscribers who want full access have to pay $5.99 per month or $59.99 per year. Home pages, classifieds, obits and announcements are also free. The Chico Enterprise-Record, York Daily Record and York Dispatch have older online subscription plans in place. Dean Singleton, the CEO at the time, promised in 2009 MNG would avoid a “cookie-cutter approach” in favor of a market-based strategy. Singleton, chairman of the Associated Press, remains chairman of MediaNews.

Despite his feelings about paywalls, it’s not a stretch to see Paton trying a variation that would include bundling to encourage more digital adoption by print subscribers or to look for some other options that may work on a market-by-market basis — particularly if local advertising get hit. It’s also not a stretch to see him shutting it all down.