The Buffalo News was a finalist for the Mega-Innovation Award presented Tuesday afternoon at the Key Executives Mega-Conference.
Top honors went to GateHouse LIVE. Statesman Media also was a finalist.
On his first day in the newsroom of The Buffalo News, David Adkins asked about the paywall that was then operated by a third-party paywall technology company. Someone who was trying to be helpful told him, "Don't worry, you can get around it."
Having just come from a Florida paper that also operated with a problematic paywall, Adkins looked into the matter further. The result was the development of a proprietary paywall that largely closed the "leakiness" and brought dramatic increases in digital subscription revenue.
Today Adkins is vice president of technology and chief operating officer of [BN]Tech, the new division of The Buffalo News Inc. that operates the in-house paywall and is starting to market it to other publishers.
"There was never any real gauge for how many people were getting around it. We truly didn't know, but we just assumed it was a tall number," Adkins said.
"So then we actually built something to track that. And it was like, 25 percent of our visitors, roughly, were bypassing it. That's when we realized that there was definitely a problem."
Adkins learned from one of his technology developers that there are at least seven ways to get around paywalls. They include clearing cookies, browsing privately and using some common ad-blocking applications.
The new technology tracks users by IP address rather than traditional cookie methods. It also helps drive readers to become digital subscribers with a weekly, rather than monthly, meter. On Feb. 12, the meter was reset to four stories per week, down from 10 for most users.
The [BN]Tech paywall debuted in late 2016. Since then, consumer digital revenue is up by more than 200 percent. In 2018, digital subscription revenue was up by $310,000, or 110 percent, over 2017.
"What's interesting is we've had 10 [free stories] per week for over a year and we've seen really great digital subscription growth, whereas on our old paywall we were at 10 per month, and we didn't get anywhere near that type of growth," Adkins said.
The traditional metering period in the industry has been a month, but Adkins argues that a week creates more consistent reading habits that drive readers to become subscribers. He believes readers can too easily use up their free stories early in the month and develop a habit of not reading the News for much of the month. The paywall technology can even set the meter at daily.
"The idea was we wanted people to form a habit of coming to read the News and we wanted people to hit the meter more often, but we also wanted to give them a sample so they could get used to the quality of journalism."
The News began marketing the technology last May. "We've talked with probably 40 or 45 different newspaper publishers," Adkins said. Most are individual papers rather than chains, though The News itself is a Berkshire Hathaway company. Two papers are testing the technology side-by-side with their existing paywalls and one is expected to go live in May. Adkins declined to name potential clients for the time being.
The proprietary paywall isn't the only innovation at The News, although another successful strategy might be considered old school. As print declines industrywide, The News has actually created five new regional hyperlocal weeklies.
"That was our counterintuitive story of the year," Adkins said.
Community Papers of Western New York was a company made up of 21 weeklies and pennysavers. When the company filed for bankruptcy and then went under in 2016, The Buffalo News was one of its biggest creditors, Adkins said. The News bought publication naming rights and restarted the pennysavers. A year later, The News decided to relaunch The Hamburg Sun, which had published for more than 100 years before closing.
"It started from nothing but grew to almost 5,000 subscribers in a very short period of time," Adkins said. The News has since launched four more Sun papers, in Tonawanda, Lancaster-Depew, Orchard Park and West Seneca.
The weeklies are delivered by mail and operate with a combination of editorial employees and freelancers. Hamburg and Tonawanda have their own staffs while the other three share staffers. The papers concentrate on sports and hyperlocal news targeted to neighborhoods. They also accept submitted photos from parents and the like, Adkins said.
Combined circulation among the five papers is about 25,000 and the initiative overall is profitable so far, he said. Each has growth targets, and has seen strong support from people and advertisers in the communities.
The company has also found success with some advertising initiatives. One that is usually sold out is called the "top hat" unit, which is a large ad that takes up a large amount of space at the top of The News website, www.buffalonews.com. The ad unit is sold on a sponsorship basis, where the advertiser occupies that premium space for 24 hours, and they are charged a premium rate for the banner ad.
The company's philosophy is to try new ideas but to not be afraid to fail, Adkins said. What doesn't work will be shut down.
"We know that not everything is going to succeed. But we know that if we don't try it, you might as well close up the doors now."
For more information, reach David Adkins at email@example.com.
The Mega-Innovation Award is sponsored annually by the Inland Press Association, Local Media Association, News Media Alliance and the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.
Jane Nicholes, a regular contributor to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association's eBulletin, is a freelance writer and editor based in coastal Alabama. She is an award-winning veteran of more than 30 years in the newspaper business. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.