The New York Times wants to convert more of its casual web readers into paying subscribers. Starting in April, the company will reduce the number of free monthly stories offered to nonsubscribers to 10 from 20, a bet that clamping down on freebies will boost subscriptions and not decrease traffic, which would mean lower ad revenue.
The company also announced that a full year after erecting the paywall, it has 454,000 paying subscribers, making it one of the more successful mass publications to charge for web content. The Wall Street Journal, which started charging for its website in 1996, has 1.3 million subscribers.
"Last year was a transformative one for the Times as we began to charge for digital access to our content," Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in a statement. "Our commitment to all our subscribers, both print and digital, is that we will continue to invest in and evolve our journalism."
To lure more subscribers, the Times is offering subscribers their first four weeks of the service for 99 cents.
To reach new readers, the Times still lets those who enter its site through outside links, search results or social sharing read those articles even if they've reached their 10-article threshold. Visiting pay sites through Google is a common work-around for nonsubscribers. The Times said it would keep that door ajar by allowing five free visits a day that won't count against the limit.
Print subscribers can link their accounts to the website for free digital access. Digital-only subscribers have three plans: $3.95 a week for NYTimes.com and smartphone access; $5 a week for NYTimes.com and tablet access; and $8.75 per week for all digital platforms, including the website, tablets and mobile devices.
Print home delivery of the Times is $12.10 a week after a 50%-off introductory rate expires.
The New York Times Co. reported 406,000 paid digital-only subscribers at the end of 2011. Circulation revenue in the fourth quarter was up 8% year-over-year because of growth in subscribers to NYTimes.com.
But the gains weren't enough to offset declining ad revenue, which could be further affected if a tighter paywall results in lower traffic. Total ad revenue in the fourth quarter was down 7.1% , driven by declines in print and at About.com. Digital-ad revenue at the newspaper group, which includes The Times, The Boston Globe and regional newspapers, was up 5.3%.
The company had 30.7 million unique visitors in February, according to comScore.