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Education Week to Adopt 'Metered' Subscription Model

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Education Week is turning to a so-called metered-access subscription model on its website, edweek.org, beginning next week, following a direction taken by some prominent publications.

Paid subscribers will continue to have full access to the national newspaper that focuses on precollegiate education, while more casual visitors will be nudged toward becoming registered users who will be able to read 3 free articles, blog posts, and commentaries per month before being prompted to subscribe. [Update, Oct. 1, 2014: This post has been updated to reflect changes to Education Week's metered model.]

The Bethesda, Md.-based newspaper first instituted a "paywall" in 2005, restricting access to articles in the print newspaper and archives to paid subscribers, though with frequent "open house" periods when much restricted content was free, such as when Education Week's annual Quality Counts accountability report came out each January.

Since that time, though, edweek.org has come to rely on news and opinion blogs, such as Politics K-12, District Dossier, and Bridging Differences for breaking news and opinion perspectives. Those blog posts have been free content, but that will change under the new model.

"Since the first edition of Education Week was published more than 30 years ago, subscribers have been essential partners in our mission to provide comprehensive, authoritative coverage of national, state, and local K-12 policy, research, and practice," Virginia B. Edwards, the president and editor-in-chief of the newspaper, said in a notice to readers. "That support has enabled us to transform our organization from a print-centric weekly newspaper to a dynamic, multifaceted, user-friendly digital information source. And it will allow continued investment in high-quality coverage and service to readers."

In an interview, Edwards said there was lengthy internal research and discussion about moving to the metered model, and that Education Week was following in the footsteps of such daily newspapers as the Financial Times and The New York Times with that model. (The Times, by one estimate, has added 727,000 digital-only subscribers since introducing its model in 2011, adding some $150 million in circulation revenue each year to its bottom line.)

"In both of those cases, it proved to be a smart decision on their parts," she said of the two dailies. "It didn't reduce page views, and traffic on both of their sites increased as a result of moving to the metered model."

There were critics when Education Week first erected a paywall who argued that because it was published by a nonprofit organization, Editorial Projects in Education Inc., and covered an important area of public policy, it should have done everything possible to maintain fully free access. However, all publications have struggled with both the recession and the reality that print advertising has been on a downward slide, and online advertising is less lucrative per individual ad.

"This is really hard work to figure out how to produce high-quality work, get it out, and keep it sustainable," said Edwards.

"I believe, and Education Week believes, that content has value," she said.  "We were among the earliest periodicals to put a subscription model in place. But we also want to make as much of our content as possible available freely.

"I think we still, with a metered model, are being true to that approach," Edwards said. "It is only the people who are the heaviest users who will be required to pay."

Only story pages—articles, blog posts, and opinion pieces—will count toward the monthly story limit. Certain areas of edweek.org, such as the homepage, topics pages, collections, multimedia presentations, and story previews, will not count against that limit for registered users.

Emily Bell, a professor at the graduate school of journalism at Columbia University and the director of its Tow Center for Digital Journalism, said that in light of the success of The New York Times and others with metered-paywall systems, more Web publications are turning to the model.

"Publications are seeing that cutting yourself off from the social web is not the best way to encourage readership," said Bell, who was director of digital content for Britain's Guardian newspaper from 2006 to 2010.

She said there is still a certain amount of uncertainty with any pay-subscription model online.

"We're still in relatively early days for saying whether this is a model that will work for everybody," Bell said. "I think it is more likely to work for professional publications, or ones with a monopoly or a specialism that nobody else has."

She noted that others, such as the Guardian and the Web newspaper Huffington Post, have "aggressively adopted the free model."

"There just isn't one model that will suit everybody," she said. "It depends on your audience, your strategy, and your content."

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