A Conversation About Why Will Become a Subscriber Site

June 20, 2005 4 min read
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Last week, Virginia B. Edwards, the publisher of, the Web site of Education Week newspaper, Teacher Magazine, an Education Week Research Center, and our Agent K-12 job-search site announced that this fall our Web site will no longer be completely free.

This no doubt will raise a lot of questions in your mind, so we have compiled some answers here, and we will add to these as the summer progresses. Our Web site and our newspaper will update you all summer about the changes that are coming.

In addition to keeping you informed about the changes to come, we want to give you a look at some of our thinking and want to explain why we are making this change. We encourage your comments, thoughts and reaction in exchange. That’s what this blog is about: Our opportunity to comment back and forth with one another as we get closer to requiring a subscription to access most content on

We know this change is not without its risks. And we know there is no one roadmap to accomplish this. That’s why were here talking about it.Our publisher is allowing us to be a transparent, ongoing case study for taking a newspaper Web site from free to subscription.

I suspect many of you are asking yourselves why are we doing this? The letter from our publisher, Ms. Edwards, (linked to above) starts to answer this question, and she will write more on this blog about her reasoning and her goals.

Here are some of the questions that sent us down this path: How do we build the value of our Web site, invest in its growth, preserve the value of the newspaper, properly value our content, and stop the drift of paying subscribers to the free Web site?

And here’s our dilemma: If all of our content remains on a free Web site, and if subscribers who used to pay for Education Week newspaper, drop their subscription in favor of reading the news free on the Web, then the long-term inevitability is that there won’t be enough money to keep paying the reporters and editors to publish Education Week newspaper or this site.

The latest research makes this problem clear: Nielsen/NetRatings, a television and Web site ratings company, reported last week that 21 percent of online users who also read newspapers, now prefer to read newspaper articles online. Mostly, that means they are turning from a product for which they have to pay, to one where they don’t. To say the least, that’s not a business model that can succeed in the long run.

For’s change to requiring a subscription, we plan a three-tiered strategy of free content, registration content, and subscription content. We still have questions, however, about what content should go into each category.

Related to that, here’s a problem were working on: Should we put some of our high-traffic pages behind the subscription wall or should they be free—to market our reporting and entice more people to subscribe?

Would keeping a popular page free really get people to subscribe, or is that just theory? If we keep those pages free, would we be giving readers all they want from the site, so they never would subscribe? Or, how many readers would we alienate by taking a popular page and moving it to the subscriber-only section of the site? How do we know (in advance) if the content is enough of a draw to get anyone to subscribe? Would we continue to make more money from the ads on those pages by keeping the really popular content free?

Thankfully, we have a little more information to guide us on this question because our site has required registration for almost two years. That data helped inform our decision-making on this problem. Here’s how: Users of our site are asked to select whether they are school administrators, principals, teachers, students, etc. We’re now studying the popular pages to see who goes there, with a particular focus on the demographics.

We feel a little safer charging for a popular page that is visited mainly by superintendents and principals than we do if that page is read mainly by teachers and students, because administrators are a significant percentage of our readers, and they probably can expense the cost of the subscription. Seems to us that the second situation means the page should be free to continue to get decent ad revenue from a demographic that very likely would not subscribe. Losing the teachers and students could mean losing our future audience.

So that’s our Lesson #1: Switching to subscription is like flying blind if you don’t first set up registration and gather demographic data on your users.

We will update at least weekly with major topics such as how we have changed our advertising pricing and sales tactics, how are we changing our budget projections, and what we are doing about the first-time visitor who comes to us through a search engine. But we also will have regular, shorter updates with our problem of the moment—ones we probably haven’t thought about, yet. You will hear from our publisher, general manager, circulation director and others.

The next major update will explain why in the heck we are making this change. Our publisher will share the data that made her believe this is the right move for

We know we will benefit from a wider discussion of our ideas, and we hope you use the comment feature of this blog to let us and everyone else—know what you think. You also can send us your comments at

Another version of this blog, designed to explain the change to editors, is available at The Media Center, at the American Press Institute. We thank The Media Center for helping us contribute our experiences to the questions many editors will have to face.

Note about the author: Gary Kebbel is interim executive producer of

A version of this news article first appeared in the Behind the Scenes blog.


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