As a blue voice in a red state, the Arkansas Times initially launched its online pay wall as a way for readers to cast their vote for the state’s most reliably liberal news organization.
A year later, ArkTimes.com has about 815 people who think the paper’s progressive perspective is worth their money.
At $110 a year or $9.99 a month, 815 digital subscriptions would bring in between $89,650 and $97,700 a year. But Editor Lindsey Millar said about “5 percent or so of Times subscribers have elected to pay more,” resulting in annual revenue of about $100,000.
For a small publishing outlet, that’s “real money,” he said. “It allows us to keep everyone employed, it allows us to maintain that liberal voice, and it allows us to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Millar said.
Publisher Alan Leveritt said the revenue from digital membership is basically paying the salary of Senior Editor Max Brantley, plus a small surplus. “That’s a legitimate contribution from a consumer to a producer,” he said.
When the metered pay wall was first introduced on Aug. 1, 2013, all four Arkansas Times’ blogs — Arkansas Blog, Eat Arkansas, Eye Candy and Rock Candy — were behind the paywall, with the rest of the website’s material freely available. Now only the Arkansas Blog and Eat Arkansas are locked down, and Eye Candy has been folded into Rock Candy, which is now outside the paywall.
“The vast majority of subscribers are there for Arkansas Blog,” Millar said.
Leveritt describes Arkansas Blog as “Max’s obsessive collection” of breaking news and political analysis. Arkansas Blog will celebrate 10 years in October with Arkansas Times marking its 40th anniversary the month before.
Brantley, who worked at the Arkansas Gazette nearly 19 years before joining the Times, said that as a daily newspaper reporter he was often frustrated by not being able to break news until the next day. But the Internet changed everything. With the ability to post 24/7, Brantley has created an online presence that his readers are willing to pay for.
Brantley, Leveritt said, “knows where every body in this city is buried, and people are willing to pay to gain access to his information.”
In May, the Times staff recorded its first “Today in Arkansas” video in which Brantley reads the latest headlines from Arkansas Blog with accompanying commentary. The videos are shared on YouTube and Facebook to generate interest in the blog.
Last month, the videos averaged about 120 views each on YouTube, but Millar said they receive far more views on Facebook — about 1,000 a day.
Millar said he considers the pay wall to be a successful experiment based on the metric he thinks matters most: Web traffic. “We’re not setting the world on fire with subscribers,” Millar said, “but it’s not costing us traffic.”
More than 1 million people visited the Arkansas Times website in June. Year over year, the Times homepage has seen about a 90 percent increase in unique visitors, but only about a 20 percent increase in page views.
As a metered pay wall, the website allows each unique visitor 10 page views per month before content is blocked by a message prompting readers to subscribe.
At first, the pay wall generated “grumbling” from some readers, Millar said, and Leveritt said advertisers had questions, but the pay wall didn’t “run anyone off.”
“When you’re trying to maintain your editorial firepower, you’ve got to look for as many different revenue sources as you can,” Leveritt said. Another revenue experiment the Times used was crowdfunding a joint reporting venture with InsideClimate News to investigate the causes and effects of the Exxon Pegasus pipeline oil spill in Mayflower. A total of $26,865 was raised on ioby, a citizen-led, neighbor-funded platform.
With its 40th anniversary approaching next month, the Times is planning to launch another membership campaign to make archived stories from its early days as a statewide magazine available online for a “small fee,” Millar said.
As for the pay wall, Leveritt said he didn’t plan to increase prices with the coming year.
Millar said it’s hard to know if the pay wall will be a permanent fixture at ArkTimes.com, but if it continues to grow he doesn’t see a reason to get rid of it.
“As long as it’s growing and our traffic is growing, and as long as our advertisers aren’t running, I don’t see a reason to turn it off,” Millar said. “Maybe digital membership will continue to grow allowing us to expand what we’re doing in the newsroom, but for now it’s more about preservation than anything.”