Update: The Meter's Running at the Arkansas Times

Stories from the print edition will remain free.

Starting Aug. 1, the Arkansas Times will begin selling digital memberships for access to parts of its website, including its popular Arkansas Blog. Publisher Alan Leveritt lays out the whys and hows in a blog post this morning:

We can’t continue to produce aggressive, trenchant, independent reporting and analysis without increased reader support. A new model for funding, in which readers bear a share of our costs, is vital to the future of the Times.

That’s why, on Aug. 1, Arkansas Times will introduce a digital membership plan. Access to our daily content — on four blogs, the Arkansas Blog, Eat Arkansas, Eye Candy and Rock Candy — will be metered. All readers will receive 10 blog views per month for free, after which only members who pay $9.99 per month will have access. Access to the rest of the site — the calendar, dining listings and what appears in the print edition of the Times — will continue to be free.

There's also this (very well done) video, designed to get the Times' core reader throwing dollars at the monitor by the time Senior Editor Max Brantley gets rolling on free speech and the mission of the liberal news site:

The move comes a few months after the Times conducted a survey asking readers about their willingness to pay for the site's content. The survey proposed several packages of content at different price points. Times Editor Lindsey Millar tells me the survey indicated readers were willing to pay at least $9.99 for blog content.

Times reporter David Ramsey says on Twitter -- and Millar confirms -- that the Times is the first alternative weekly newspaper in the country to try an online meter. Millar said he gave a presentation of the Times' plan at a recent conference of alt weeklies. He said at least one other alt weekly is on the verge of adding a digital subscription plan, and a few others are interested.

"In the past, there's been kind of some boo-hissing to even bringing it up because it's been such the daily [newspaper] thing," Millar said, adding that he's well aware of the criticism the Times itself has hurled toward the mostly locked-down online version of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

But like other news organizations, the Times is struggling with the gulf between the kind of money you make with traditional advertising versus online advertising -- even as the Arkansas Times website racks up about 1 million pageviews per month and the Times brand pulls in a fifth of its revenue from digital advertising. Thus, the meter, which Millar calls "the grand experiment."

So how does the meter work? Millar said visits to blog homepages will count as one view. If a reader clicks a blog headline to view more material "on the jump" or even see comments, that counts as another view. Once the reader hits 10 views, he'll be asked to subscribe to read additional content. Every month, the meter resets.

Visits from links on Twitter and other social media won't count against the meter. Nor will a visit to the Arkansas Times homepage.

Millar said the Times will be constantly evaluating the new strategy, including the meter's 10-view limit. He said the Times plans to be as transparent as possible about the how the model is working.

So will the Times' core reader pay up? Millar said he's "cautiously optimistic." He said he's aiming for a 5 percent conversion rate -- a target greater than the 2 percent rate newspaper sites have seen -- because of readers' emotional attachment to the Times' "progressive" editorial voice.

"They might sign up as a way to support this voice that they really believe in and want to see stick around," he said.

More: "We're good at change." The Neiman Journalism Lab takes a long look at the Arkansas Times and its new metered strategy.

Also: Speaking of reader support, the move comes just as the Times is about to get rolling on its crowdfunded coverage of the Mayflower oil spill, an effort that includes former Arkansas Business reporter Sam Eifling.

And finally: The Arkansas Times has posted a FAQ about the meter.

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