Lessons learned: The Independent to drop American digital charges

UK newspaper The Independent is likely to tear down the metered digital charging model it began operating in the US and Canada a year ago, saying the idea has not worked.

Digital managing director Zach Leonard tells Journalism.co.uk: “(It) has not delivered on the ambitions from a revenue standpoint.”

This is not just a facile “paywalls don’t work” story. The Independent‘s paid strategy was partial and regional. Charges were not introduced at home in the UK or anywhere else.

Instead, The Indy experimented with charging the small reader base it has in the States – the same model by which The Onion now charges its overseas visitors outside the region. The newspaper had charged $6.99 per month for more than 20 articles.

But, for The Independent, the tactic has not borne fruit. While Independent.co.uk’s domestic UK audience has jumped by 75 percent during the period, its Rest-Of-World traffic (dominated by the US) has grown by just 5.5 percent.

Leonard acknowledges overseas audiences “don’t necessarily stick”, but “advertising has flourished for us in North America so we’d like that to continue”.

“So we’re creating new reasons to engage with us,” Leonard tells Journalism.co.uk. “If we were the New York Times, and had a real following, particularly a subscription-based audience, I think we might have a different view on that.”

The key takeaway here is that it is very hard to start charging a small and disconnected audience from the platform of low consumer brand awareness.

Conversely, The Independent‘s domestic rival The Guardian has gone to America off the back of some notorious journalism and on an entirely free platform, even dropping subscription for its mobile news app whilst retaining the fees at home. Like Mail Online, it is finding growing US audiences, for which it is hoping to attract advertising.