Paywall blues: Denver Post running on empty?

It was the road the Digital First CEO hoped never to travel

Paywall blues: Denver Post running on empty?

It’s hard to tell whether it’s an act of desperation or simply a major reality check, but whatever the case, the Denver Post is soon going to a paywall.

What makes this particularly newsworthy – beyond the fact that many thousands of Post online readers would now have to shell out cash to read the product — is that Digital First Media CEO John Paton, whose company manages the Post, has been an adamant opponent of paywalls.

He has called paywalls the business of “stacking pennies.” Now, if it’s lucky, the Post will be stacking — and counting — your pennies, which would soon begin to look a lot more like your dollars.

The Post will roll out the paywall on Dec. 2. After a one-month trial period, digital subscriptions will start at $11.99 monthly while  print and digital access will cost $5.50 weekly.

It’s another shock, certainly, at the Post, which recently suffered yet another round of layoffs (a situation about which I know far too much) and saw the retirement — was it a forced retirement, as speculated? — of longtime Post owner and publisher Dean Singleton. It could all be a coincidence, of course, but that’s never the way to bet.

From the forward-thinking executive comes what sounds like a hard step backward. The money quote: ‘We need more gas in the tank if we are going to complete this journey of print-to-digital journalism.’

In the Post’s story on the paywall, Denver Post CEO Mac Tully said, “This is a strategy that, quite frankly, is a long time coming. We keep forcing our subscribers to pay more for content and turning it around and giving it away free to everybody else.”

But that’s not the way Tully’s boss, Paton, sees it. Paton, who has said that paywalls are the lazy newspaper executive’s way out, announced the change on his blog. He likes to announce stuff on his blog —  the forward way for a forward-thinking executive. But the announcement was a hard look back. The money quote: “We need more gas in the tank if we are going to complete this journey of print-to-digital journalism.”

More gas would mean, we assume, more money. Digital First — which is the second largest newspaper publisher in the country — had experimented with paywalls at various MediaNews papers and didn’t much like the results, or the money. Paywalls cut back on page views and, according to Paton, they haven’t provided much revenue. And yet, he’s now going all in, at least in the short term. There may be a few newspaper executives smiling as Paton has had to eat some digital-dime crow.

Paton has been an advocate of open access, getting the most possible online views, and finding a way to monetize the digital product across the Digital First chain. Apparently, it hasn’t been working.

He says digital revenues have climbed 89 percent over the last three years at Digital First, but 89 percent growth — when you’re starting at close to zero – hasn’t been nearly enough. Paton’s project was, as he put it, to stack digital dimes to replace the falling print dollars. This move can only be called a retreat, and an embarrassing one.

The conventional wisdom in the industry is that the critical mistake was made years ago, when newspapers decided to give away their content. Everything flowed, mostly downhill, from there. Yes, information wants to be free. But it also had to be paid for. And so, newsrooms have shrunk, bureaus have closed, and niche blogs have taken over many of the areas where newspapers used to dominate.

Now, after years of allowing free access, newspapers are moving as quickly as they can toward the pay model, with the expected resistance from consumers.

Digital First and the Washington Post were the major holdouts. The Washington Post went first — and then was sold. Digital First, with its 75 newspapers, doesn’t have the option of a Jeff Bezos coming to the rescue.

So, paywalls. It does sound a little like desperation.

“I do think long-term they can restrict audience growth, and that’s something we’ll have to be careful about,” Paton said, according to the Post story, of paywalls. But he says they are “a good, strong business initiative.”

In an interview last summer with, Paton didn’t sound quite so enthusiastic about a paywall — which he calls “All Access.”

“All Access is nothing like a solution for our industry, but it could buy some gas in the tank to get down the road,” Paton said. “It is currently the rage in our industry because it doesn’t require you to think too much about the digital future you have to build – just what you might be able to charge your print customers today for it.”

As Paton said, newspapers’ resistance to change has been “aided and abetted by lousy CEOs and news executives who refuse to take the necessary risks to build this industry’s future.”

Denver Post non-subscribers will have to pay for access after a number of free reads — starting at 25 – per month. As you’re paying, remember that Post executives really don’t want you to do this.

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About the Author

Mike Littwin

He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow. | Twitter @mike_littwin


  1. John on said:

    Interesting. I’m actually surprised that the Post didn’t move to a paywall earlier. I have never understood about this transition in journalism was the notion that you could give away what you were also selling. If people went to a CD store that had two counters – one selling CDs and the other giving the same CDs away for free – most would opt for the free CDs even knowing that the store needed to sell enough to stay in business.

    What I didn’t see addressed in your column is the impact on journalism of reduced interest in news. Do as many people follow news today as they did in the past? To me, it’s a frightening thought since a free society depends on all of us being informed and engaged. But how much of this falloff in revenue can be traced to lack of interest in the product?

    I have kept my Post subscription, no so much because I love the Post, but because of the investigative reporting that it occasionally does which exposes some of the chicanery around here that would otherwise go on undeterred. Seems to me that’s a very important function of journalism.

    Unfortunately, my growing perception is that we have an uninformed public which is quite happy that way and therefore much more willing to be duped by demagogues and extremists who thrive and feed on this kind of ignorance.

    I really worry about the future of news and journalism when people don’t understand its role in a free society.

  2. Pingback: I’m enjoying this | First things

  3. Lisa C on said:

    I canceled my subscription to the Post last year after years of increasing frustration with their coverage. The paper was shrinking, especially on weekdays, and the coverage was poor. Maybe they’d fired anyone who might pass as a fact-checker these days, but certainly some of their stories passed off misinformed opinions as “facts.”

    The fact that they’d gotten rid of your column was also high on my list of reasons for canceling, as were the rapidly-rising subscription costs. Seriously who is going to pay $195 a year for a paper whose coverage is all too often biased or inaccurate? After the Rocky Mountain News closed, my sub to the Denver Post was $60 for a daily paper–in 2009 and 2010. It’s nearly tripled in price for coverage that’s gotten worse. And even now, their digital subscription price is more than I’m paying to subscribe to the New York Times. I think not!

  4. Ryecatcher on said:

    I agree with John’s statement concerning an uninformed public duped by demagogues and extremists aka Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck. I also agree with Lisa C. I’ll pass on the Post and go with my on line news sources.

    The Post’s web site seems to be increasingly annoying with the commercial intrusions.

  5. Mike Littwin on said:

    I don’t think the interest in news has fallen off. There is more information available now than ever before. Politics, it is often said, is the new sports. And look at the proliferation of Washington political Web sites.

    The problem is that circulation for the printed newspaper is tanking, meaning that advertising dollars are shrinking. In the recent past, classified advertising provided one-third of newspaper revenue. Now that revenue barely exists. And the online model for advertising has never worked well enough on news sites to adequately support a newsroom.
    So newspapers are shrinking. Reporters get laid off. The product becomes less engaging. Fewer people want to read it – because there are so many other options, often at no cost.

    But there are few options for local news — and it is here where local newspapers are often failing. And that, I’m afraid, is where the crisis is.

  6. Dean Mason on said:

    Lisa C.

    Really? NYT digital is $15 per month. You can get the Denver Post Sunday paper delivered and everyday online for only $7.68 per month.

  7. Jen on said:

    I held on to my print sub to the Post until I was given an iPad as a gift. Suddenly, my reading went totally online. The advertising online is even more obnoxious than the inserts in the print pub. Not unlike the App world, I’d be happy to pay for an ad-free version. Is there any paper w a pay wall that offers a premium option with no interstitial ads? I’d pay for that. It might make up for the need to continually log in from all devices… This has obviously been some time in coming as this kind of web implementation can be complex… wonder if it will dovetail with all their existing log ins!

  8. John on said:

    Mike, I take your points about print and Web journalism. I’m still pessimistic about how engaged many people are in the news. The line between commentary (MSNBC, Fox) and something approaching real news seems to have taken us away from news and moved us more toward hearing and reading those people who we agree with. I really hope you’re right that people are still interested in what’s going on around them. It’s a big part of what makes this democracy thing work, if it’s going to work at all. Love that you’re back in the saddle.

  9. Mike Littwin on said:

    I take your point, too. Not sure the electorate was ever particularly well informed. as i said, though, my greater fear is that there is no one left to watchdog local and state government.

  10. John on said:

    I agree. As I said above, the only reason I subscribe to the post anymore is to help support the investigative journalism that still can happen once in a while in the DP.

  11. daisy on said:

    Hi Mike,

    Always enjoyed your articles at the Post, and we dropped the paper after they dropped you. After some of us got the buyout/layoff/euphemism, we really saw the content shrink. As to Dink, who can think? Hoisted upon his own petard? C’est possible. $5.50/ week sounds like a decent price, until you do the math; you are looking at $286/year! Anyway, to add to the story: They were considering charging for the online edition a good 10 years ago. And advertising rates more than quadrupled during the JOA/merger around 2001, and after the Rocky’s demise. No one I know advertises there anymore, and all classifieds and jobs listings worth a hoot went to craigslist. Stocks pages were dropped and everyone’s used to getting them online now, the TV guide was dropped, the decent funnies and puzzles attracted the Seniors, who are not buying it anymore at over $100 bucks for the Senior price. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I surmise, and this… well, it’s been the beginning of the end for a long time.

  12. knie massage on said:

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