It has been almost a year since Gannett Co. (NYSE:GCI) first announced its massive paywall rollout, so when it reported fourth-quarter earnings on Monday, professionals on both sides of the polarizing paywall debate were watching with bated breath to see if financials for the country’s largest newspaper company would reveal whether or not its metered paywalls have been a success.
The answer, like so many things, depends on whom you ask. Gannett’s earnings report beat Wall Street expectations, but then Wall Street wasn’t expecting much. And while Gracia Martore, Gannett’s president and CEO, touted circulation revenue growth as a sign that its paywall investments “are already bearing fruit,” shares of Gannet stock tumbled 6.7 percent to $18.50 later that day amid concerns that ongoing declines in print advertising are dragging the company down.
That would seem to suggest that investors have little faith in the paywalls' ability to improve Gannet’s bottom line, but analysts say it’s still too soon for a referendum on whether they’re worth the effort.
“The success of the metered paywalls will be easier to determine at the end of the first or second quarter of this year,” Joscelyn MacKay, an analyst with Morningstar, said. “That’s when we’ll really get a chance to see if they show year-over-year growth.”
In February, Gannett announced that it would begin enacting metered paywalls on the websites of all of its 80 community newspapers. (Its flagship paper, USA Today, was spared.) The move came after the New York Times Company (NYSE:NYT) did the same for NYTimes.com in 2011, a decision that has sparked a kind of paywall renaissance over the last two years.
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“Everyone thought they were crazy, but it took off,” Doug Arthur, an analyst at Evercore Partners, said of the Times' paywall. “And now it turns out it may save the company, which is why you’re seeing so many copycat models.”
Arthur, who called Gannett’s digital-access plan a “work in progress,” said the company’s situation differs from that of the Times in that it manages dozens of small community newspapers instead of one global one. The company’s “all-access” content subscription model allows subscribers to view Gannett’s content on multiple platforms, but it comes with a 50 percent price hike for print-only subscribers.
“They kind of forced everyone’s hand,” Arthur said. “They said, ‘Look, this is our content, and this is what it costs. You can get it on a website or an iPad or delivered to your doorstep.’”
Victoria Harker, Gannet’s CFO, said in a conference call on Monday that Gannet has completed its paywall rollout in 78 local markets, and she said that the all-access model is already showing promise. “Across all waves and markets, the all-access content subscription model now boasts nearly 46,000 digital-only subscribers,” Harker said. “This represents a very significant rate of adoption, given it was launched only 10 months ago in the first wave of markets.”
Unlike the all-or-nothing paywall models of yesteryear -- which the Times tried and abandoned in 2007 -- metered paywalls allow nonsubscribers to view a certain number of articles for free each month. In theory, the model gives publishers the best of both worlds, letting them charge a nominal fee for their online content without sacrificing the throngs of unique visitors that discover their websites though search traffic. During the conference call, Martore did not say whether Gannett’s metered paywalls have come at the expense of online traffic, but she did say that circulation revenue for the quarter was up 15 percent at Gannett’s local domestic publishing operations.
“For all of 2012, the new subscription model increased operating profit for the publishing segment by approximately $20 million,” she added. “With the model now fully deployed, we expect an operating profit boost of $80 million or more this year.”
But MacKay expressed concerns that even a best-case scenario for Gannett’s paywall revenue would not be enough to offset the decline in print-ad revenues that has plagued the company for so long. “Subscription revenue is less than a third of their publishing revenue,” MacKay said. “In the long term, it’s not a sustainable way to grow their topline.”
Nevertheless, more and more newspapers are plugging the print-advertising hole with metered paywalls and digital-subscription plans -- and the trend is only likely to grow. According to figures compiled by Newspapers & Technology, an industry trade magazine, some 395 North American newspapers now use paywalls. That number has doubled over the last year alone.
In Gannett’s case, paywalls may ultimately provide little more than the feeling that it has finally gained control of a sinking ship, but in the uncertain newspaper business, feeling in control is no small accomplishment. “For the first time in a long time, we were playing offense,” Martore said of the company’s annual performance. “We got off to a fast start in February by announcing our new strategic plan, and we gained momentum as the year progressed.”