Credit: Image by Egor Shitikov from Pixabay

Like many local publications, the Santa Barbara Independent was searching for a sustainable revenue model after years of declining advertising income.

The Californian news organisation has been serving its local community of around 250,000 inhabitants for more than three decades with its free weekly print newspaper and later a website. Yesterday (13 January 2020), it launched a new paywall that combines subscription plans with micropayment options to finance its journalism for the years to come.

"We looked at different revenue models, like memberships," said Brandi Rivera, publisher at Santa Barbara Independent, "but we realised that the income would be inconsistent."

She explained that a membership model comes with a risk of fluctuating revenue as readers would happily spend some money after a good email push but one-off contributions are not enough to keep the newsroom going. Also, the idea of sending perks to entice people to join simply felt too 'gimmicky'.

With its new subscription model, the Santa Barbara Independent offers its readers the possibility to subscribe for a month or a year ($29.99), or pay between 29 and 99 cents for specific articles. Users will also get a $3 credit they can use towards their chosen subscription option, an initiative supported by the investment platform Transact that worked with the publishers on creating the paywall.

Breaking news, critical content, and the print publication with a circulation of around 40,000 copies a week will remain free.

"I looked at other payment models and price points of other subscriptions," said Rivera about determining the subscription fee, adding that it is more important at this stage to not turn people off but make them feel part of the community.

Non-subscribers will be able to read the first 100-200 words of an article before being asked to pay. Print readers will be informed they can support their paper with an online subscription.

The publication will track which articles 'made' people subscribe via unique links at the bottom of each page. Rivera admitted there is a possibility that some topics and section may be more efficient in converting readers into paying subscribers. However, even if users do not pay for certain articles, it does not mean this is not valuable content.

So how will the newspaper measure the success of its new paywall?

"This is an opportunity to engage with the community," said Rivera.

"We will be looking at the early adoption rate. I’d like to see at least 2,000 subscribers in the next three months."

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