More US papers mull charging readers for online content

GlobalPost and the Fayetteville Observer are reportedly close to rolling out pay software called Press+.

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Yesterday, The New York Times had a piece on a handful of papers that plan to retreat – or have already retreated – behind a pay-wall. (The Times recently announced it will eventually roll out a metered system of its own.) The focus of the article is software called Press+, which was invented by longtime industry insiders Steven Brill and L. Gordon Crovitz.

For a price, Brill and Crovitz will come to your outlet, and set up Press+, which takes all of your content – or a goodly chunk of it – and makes people fork over cash to see it. A hugely controversial idea, obviously, even at a time when the newspaper business is struggling to stay afloat. The major argument against pay-walls is simple: Internet-savvy people will just go elsewhere to find the treasure you're ransoming inside your digital fortress.

But Brill and Crovitz say that Press+ could work, if it is rolled out slowly. "[Y]ou want to establish the notion that it’s worth something online,” Brill told the Times. “What we have convinced people of is they don’t have to make a drastic decision. You can experiment.” Thus far, it seems to be mostly smaller papers that are mulling over buying into the Press+ system.

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Among them: The Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era, a Pennsylvania paper; North Carolina's Fayetteville Observer; and GlobalPost, a site with a focus on international news. So clearly the initial market for Press+ is either regionals – some of which have been hit very hard by a slump in advertising dollars – or specialty outlets.

That makes sense: The Fayetteville Observer, for instance, might have a story on a local car dealer that no one else has, and it might believe that the article on the car dealer is worth paying for. Ditto for dispatches by the far-flung reportorial staff of GlobalPost. Still, you can count Horizons a little skeptical. The only major working models we really have for a pay-wall are The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times, both papers that are able to attract a large audience of business clients.

Then there's Newsday, the long-ailing – and once formidable – Long Island newspaper. As John Koblin of The New York Observer wrote back in January, Newsday's pay system hasn't exactly opened up the paper's audience. Now before we reveal the exact number of people who have signed up to read Newsday online, we should say that the figure does not include subscribers to the dead tree edition of Newsday, who automatically get access to the stuff behind the paywall.

Ready? OK. The number is.... 35 people. But hey, maybe everyone is being too dismissive.

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