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Lee Newspapers websites in Montana putting up metered paywalls

News reached me tonight — via KTVQ’s Twitter feed, of all places — that the Billings Gazette and other Lee Newspapers in the state (perhaps elsewhere, for all I know) are going to a metered paywall model for their websites.

(I especially like the part of the KTVQ story where they point out that, hey, their online content is still free, oh, and they have mobile apps.)

The details of the new paywall are on the Billings Gazette site. Basically, readers get 20 pages for free per month before they must pay. You can read all about the prices if you like — what will count toward your total, what won’t. I really don’t care, since I won’t be paying.

I did notice this one little gem in the paywall description, though:

A reader who clicks on a news story registers one page view. If the reader then clicks to read comments that accompany that story, she logs another page view. This reader will register two page views — one for the story, one for the string of comments.

Though our website runs on the same software as the Gazette’s, they have chosen to put reader comments on a separate tab, whereas ours are at the bottom of the articles. This now conveniently allows them to count an extra pageview whenever a non-paid reader wants to see the comments.

Want to bet the number of comments on their site drops?

Well, it was going to drop anyway. That’s what paywalls do: They trade audience for money. Even the metered paywall, which to my mind is the most sensible of all the paywall options out there, will kill off a portion of a news site’s Web traffic.

Editors and accountants will hope the audience will bounce back in a year or so. A lot of sites that I’ve read about experience this bounce back, some almost to previous traffic levels, but there is always some damage to the paper’s prominence and reputation online.

I would be lying if I said there aren’t discussions in our corporation about paywalls. Some Pioneer papers are even testing paywall models, including a metered approach similar to what the Gazette is doing. The results of those tests are not yet in.

The thing to be careful about is the thing I found funny about KTVQ’s reporting on the Gazette paywall. The television news is a competitor. Sure, their format does not allow for the same in-depth reporting that the printed word allows, but they compete for advertising dollars in our communities.

KTVQ, in particular, is a heck of a news station. They do a great job, and with the influx of advertising money that will likely leave Lee papers in the state (Since fewer people will be going to their sites to see the ads, those Lee ads will be less useful to companies.), they’ll be doing an even better job, and I’m sure all the CBS stations in the state will benefit.

Oh, well. Competition’s fun! Right?