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Sun-Times Media online sites to begin metered pay plan

Updated: January 8, 2012 8:16AM

The Chicago Sun-Times and its sister publications in the suburbs will start charging for online access, joining the ranks of newspapers looking for revenue from digital sources.

Access to web sites controlled by Sun-Times Media LLC will be governed by a “metered” pay plan starting Thursday. Web site users will get 20 free page views at any Sun-Times-affiliated site every 30 days, and will be required to buy an online subscription for additional access.

“We think the time is long overdue for us to begin charging for our content,” said Jeremy Halbreich, Sun-Times Media chairman. “It is certainly award-winning content and we need to find new ways to support it.”

Online subscriptions will be $1.99 per four weeks for home-delivery customers. Digital-only subscribers will be charged $6.99 every four weeks, or they can pay $77.87 for yearlong access.

Subscribers to any of 40 newspapers that are part of Sun-Times Media will qualify for the $1.99 rate, regardless of which paper they want to access.

There are several exceptions to the 20-page limit and some portions of the web sites will remain free. Visits to the newspaper home pages and to section fronts, such as the pages that index the top news or sports stories, won’t count toward the 20 pages.

Sections whose content is mostly advertising will remain free. They include sections derived from traditional classified advertising categories, such as cars, home sales and death notices.

The Sun-Times would become the first of Chicago’s two downtown-based dailies to charge for online access. Its system was developed by Press+, a division of R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co.

Steven Brill, who started American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, is a co-founder of Press+ with L. Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal.

Crovitz said Press+ works with more than 400 publishers and that more than half have begun online charges.

The suburban Daily Herald, a Press+ client, installed a metered system last summer, charging non-print subscribers $19.99 per month after 15 page views.

The Chicago Tribune has free access, but two newspapers that are part of its corporate parent, Tribune Co., have launched pay systems. The papers are the Baltimore Sun and the Morning Call of Allentown, Pa.

Newspapers traditionally have been leery of charging for online access, afraid that people will migrate elsewhere for free news and that their web traffic will decline. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal charge for online access, but they are national papers with an elite audience. The Washington Post and USA Today still have free online access.

Crovitz said Press+ has compiled data that lets publishers sets pricing standards that reduce the impact on page views. The Sun-Times, he said, “has a lot of loyal followers,” people who view multiple stories online. Instituting a metered system “puts the Sun-Times in a position to strengthen the journalism in its communities,” he said.

In 2005, newspapers across the country tallied $47.4 billion in advertising, but the industry in 2010 reported only half that revenue, said the Newspaper Association of America. The recession has cut billings from onetime print strongholds in retail, real estate and automotive advertising, but other business has been lost to multiple web sites.

With less revenue to support operations, newspapers including Sun-Times properties have been forced to lay off editorial staff and take away some content.

Halbreich said the pricing for access to Sun-Times Media was set low enough to draw in new customers. He said papers that have set higher rates for online access do it as a defensive play to preserve their print subscriptions.

He also said other metro papers that have tried metered systems have seen temporary declines in their web traffic, but that activity generally picks up after about three months.

Halbreich said adding online revenue is “one piece of the puzzle” for newspapers. Money from a metered strategy, he said, “won’t replace all that advertising revenue that has been lost.”

Media analyst Alan Mutter, a former Chicago Sun-Times city editor, said the flexibility of metering plans appeals to publishers. “They can engineer as many page views as they need to meet advertiser commitments,” Mutter said.

Still, he said the Sun-Times move is risky because Chicago is such a competitive news market. Consumers could bypass the Sun-Times meter and get free news from the Tribune, the TV stations or sites such as Huffington Post that aggregate stories from others.

“The Sun-Times is going first. We’ll find out how enforceable a paywall is,” Mutter said.

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