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Chronicle to Charge for Online Content

Freshly printed copies of the San Francisco Chronicle move on an overhead conveyor belt November 8, 2009 in Fremont, California
Freshly printed copies of the San Francisco Chronicle move on an overhead conveyor belt November 8, 2009 in Fremont, California
Paywall seen as opportunity to boost revenue for flagging newspaper

The Hearst Corporation is considering a paywall for sfgate.com, the online portal of the San Francisco Chronicle, as part of a broad, new digital strategy for the paper, according to Chronicle staffers who have been briefed on the company’s plans.

Hearst, which owns the Chronicle, has told employees that it intends to roll out the paywall along with a digital subscription plan for the newspaper's new iPad application, which company executives see as one of the most promising platforms to deliver content and generate revenue.

While many specifics of the plan — including the monthly subscription fee and exact mix of paywall and embargoed stories — could not be confirmed, newsroom employees said that access to sfgate.com stories for nonsubscribers would be sharply curtailed. They said the paper would likely establish a “hard” paywall, rather than a metered plan that lets readers click on a certain number of articles before cutting off access. The New York Times introduced a metered paywall for its website this month.

Employees said they were told the paywall could be rolled out by the end of this month, although the plan is understood to be in flux. 

Over half of the stories now available for free on sfgate.com could be cordoned off by the new paywall, especially longer, investigative stories that appear on Sundays and many of the paper’s popular columns, said one staffer. The paper currently embargoes such stories, printing them in the newspaper before publishing them on the site two days later.

Short, daily news and breaking stories would likely remain free of charge under the new plan. One editorial staffer said a monthly fee of $9.95 is expected for the digital subscription, although that figure could not be confirmed.

Subscribers to the print edition are expected to have complete access to the website.

In a statement, Mark Adkins, President, San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.com, wrote: “The San Francisco Chronicle is planning to offer the newspaper’s content through an application for use on the iPad and other tablet devices.” He declined further comment.

A new payment strategy could have far-reaching consequences for the Chron. Remarkably strong traffic on sfgate.com represents one of the few bright spots for the otherwise beleaguered newspaper. "The Gate," as it is known, is among the nation’s top 10 newspaper websites, attracting more than 12 million unique visitors each month, according to Hearst.

On March 18, executives from Hearst’s New York headquarters flew to San Francisco to brief the Chronicle newsroom on the iPad app and digital payment changes, said several editorial employees.

In the weeks since, the announcement of the sweeping changes has been a source of confusion and anxiety for a staff that has been wrestling with massive layoffs and dwindling circulation in recent years.

“At least every day someone will make a reference to it,” said a senior-ranking reporter who spoke about the company’s plans on the condition of anonymity. “It ranges from, ‘Yeah I’m glad they’re trying something,’ to, ‘This is our death plan.’”

The sense of anxiety in the newsroom has been compounded, the reporter added, by the perception that Hearst executives in New York are keeping the San Francisco staff in the dark about a decision that could prove to be a pivotal moment in the 146-year history of San Francisco’s newspaper of record.

Many staffers still have no clear idea of exactly what the changes will look like, the reporter said.

“There doesn’t seem to be a well thought-out plan,” the reporter said. “It seems rushed.”

Alan Mutter, a media commentator, downplayed the impact of a Chronicle paywall in a metropolitan area with so many “good and aggressive media providers.”

“You got KQED, you got all the TV news, you got radio news, there’s something like 250 news operations,” said Mutter. “If they write a story about anything, somebody’s going to go out, re-report it or attribute it to the Chronicle, or do a new spin, and the news will get out anyway. The impact on the public is going to be minimal.”

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