Slate tries to buck the paywall trend by focusing on membership

There’s been a wave of online news outlets trying different versions of a paywall model over the past year or so, with everything from a New York Times-style metered plan to a hard wall like the one that former Wall Street Journal writer Jessica Lessin has around her site The Information. But Slate — one of the oldest digital-only sites on the web — has chosen a somewhat different route: it just launched a “freemium” model that focuses on the benefits of membership rather than charging people for specific articles. But will it work?
In a post announcing the launch, Slate editor David Plotz makes it clear that the site’s new plan is not a paywall, since all of the existing content that readers get for free will remain free under the new model. Instead, the new Slate+ features additional content that will be available to members who pay $5 a month or $50 a year, as well as some additional functionality that Plotz says will “streamline” the experience for paying customers.

“It’s not a paywall. Let me say that again: It’s not a paywall! We’re not asking you to pay for stories, and we’re not turning on a meter that stops you 10 stories into the month. Everything that’s free on Slate will remain free for all Slate readers. Instead, Slate Plus offers extras and opportunities, enhancements to the regular Slate experience.”

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Better comments and access to writers

Among the Slate+ enhancements: members will be able to read long stories and columns as a single page, while non-paying readers will have to click through multiple pages — and paying customers will also get a comment interface that is more streamlined, instead of the popup window readers currently get (comments by members will also be highlighted).
Judging by some of the early responses to the offering, readers aren’t enamored of the idea that paying readers will get a better commenting experience than non-paying readers — especially since Slate just recently changed its commenting interface, a change that many commenters didn’t appreciate. As one commenter put it: “$5 a month to have the same old commenting interface that they farmed out to Disqus anyways. What a bunch of greedtards.”
Apart from niceties like pagination and comments, one of the biggest differences for members that Slate is betting will help drive adoption is interaction: Slate+ subscribers will get “special access” to writers like Dear Prudence author Emily Yoffe and film critic Dana Stevens, who will host discussions that are for members only. There will also be private question-and-answer sessions with participants in the Political Gabfest, and other members-only discussions.
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Slate+ members will also get the ability to listen to the site’s three podcasts without advertising, and will get “bonus content.” Subscribers also get discounted tickets to podcast tapings, preferred seating and preferential access to any related parties or events. And Plotz adds that “this is just the start. Our model is Amazon Prime, which just keeps on adding benefits. We’re going to do the same.”

Is a reverse paywall better than none?

As Josh Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab notes, the model Slate is rolling out is also very much like what some other sites like Talking Points Memo and TechDirt have done — namely, adding benefits for paying members instead of the traditional paywall approach of blocking off existing content or features. At TechDirt, subscribers get access to interactive features that other readers don’t get, as well as access to writers and editors. Even individual bloggers like tech analyst Ben Thompson are experimenting with the membership model.
In some ways, this is what Jeff Jarvis and News Corp. executive Raju Narisetti have described in the past as a “reverse paywall,” since it rewards a site’s most dedicated fans instead of penalizing them. I’ve written before about why I prefer this model over a traditional paywall — the main reason being that it helps foster the development of a strong relationship between a site and its reader community, instead of (literally) throwing a wall up between the two.
The question remains, however, whether enough readers care about getting preferential access to discussion forums with writers and editors, or Q&A sessions with podcasting participants, and so on. Is that going to be enough to move the revenue needle for a site like Slate, or is it going to somehow generate enough other monetization opportunities that might do so? Many other media outlets are likely going to be watching Slate’s experiment closely.
Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Flickr user Giuseppe Bognanni