AJC is latest newspaper to erect paywall to protect content

After years of giving away stories online, AJC debuts subscriber-only website

The free ride is about to end for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s many media moochers.

After a soft launch lasting several weeks, the AJC this morning officially began touting myajc.com, a subscriber-only version of its familiar ajc.com. In doing so, it’s following the lead of the Boston Globe and other newspapers in maintaining two websites: a free one offering limited access to content for casual readers and a premium, full-access one that uses a so-called paywall to keep out the freeloaders. (Actually, the AJC now has three websites, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

As most folks know, the paywall conundrum has been one of the great recent challenges for most newspapers: finding a way to persuade readers to pay for your content when they’ve become accustomed to getting it free from aggregation sites, blogs and alt-weeklies — not to mention that old competitor, TV news.

Even the New York Times has gone back and forth on the issue, first erecting a paywall, then dismantling it, and then reinstating it so as to allow non-subscribers a handful of free stories before they’re cut off.

While this is the first time AJC will have installed a paywall per se, the paper has tried experiments of its own. A few years back, when the AJC brass decided to put more emphasis on its lucrative Sunday edition by reassigning its top reporters to write only for that day, it stopped posting Sunday feature stories altogether on ajc.com. Also, in late 2011, it began charging people $10 a month to read the paper on their iPad or other tablet ($3 for subscribers). I don’t know how well that did for them, but I have trouble imagining many people paying for something they could get for free on their laptop or smart phone.

Readers visiting myajc.com will find it much less cluttered than ajc.com, which is crammed with, well, crap like random youtube videos, sponsored content and invitations to “find five differences between these photos!” The new site displays headlines and the first couple of sentences from a story. After the free preview period ends May 15, if you’re a subscriber clicking on the “read more” link, you’ll be shown the full story; non-subscribers will be shown a prompt urging them to quit mooching and pay up.

How big a risk is this? Well, the ever-reliable Poynter Institute says newspapers that have taken this leap have not seen as big a drop in online readership as feared. The upside is that online advertisers are willing to pay considerably more to reach paid subscribers than freeloaders.

I’m told that the paper has had myajc.com in the works for months as its IT nerds struggled to format the new product across various e-platforms. As you may have guessed, subscribers will no longer need to pay an additional fee to read the paper on a tablet.

Here are some other quick facts about myajc.com:

  • Any level of subscription—Sunday, weekend, daily—gets you access unlimited online access to stories.
  • Did we say unlimited? We meant going back as far as 2008, which is still better than what you could get before now.
  • Yes, you’ll be able to read Sunday feature stories on your laptop.
  • Also, you can choose between two formats: the standard myajc.com layout and, for strict traditionalists, one that mimics the exact look of the print paper.

Finally, what kind of stories will be considered premium? I’ll let AJC spokeswoman Drue Miller explain:

Our free website, ajc.com, will continue to provide breaking news, and entertainment, videos, photo galleries, plus more social media engagement and improved site navigation. Our premium website, myajc.com, offers total access to all the stories from the printed daily newspaper.

As mentioned before, the AJC has a third website, AccessAtlanta.com, which was one of the very earliest and, for several years, one of the most-visited of all newspaper websites. About a decade ago, when the paper’s honchos realized that the site was cannibalizing print readership without helping build brand loyalty, they reduced it to a page full of entertainment listings and off-site links with no news content.

We’ll be watching to see how myajc.com does, but remember: You get what you pay for.