Readers of 60 of News Corp Australia's free newspapers are to be herded towards a paywall subscription offer next week with the shutdown of print production.
The company announced this morning that printing of 60 community titles in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia will be suspended from April 9 because of a fall in advertising revenue. As yet, it had not named them.
News says the community mastheads will continue to publish digitally, but content will be behind a paywall in which the first four weeks is free and the next half price.
Executive chairman Michael Miller says the decision has been "forced on us by the rapid decline in advertising revenues" after restrictions were placed on real estate auctions and home inspections, and event venues and restaurants closed.
Miller says News "remained committed" to serving communities and would be "increasing and developing" coverage.
He said the impact of COVID-19 on the community print titles "came on top of the toll on media from the refusal of digital platforms to pay publishers to use their content". News Corp' main priority was to preserve jobs and to best position its business to counter the crisis. "During this unprecedented time it is imperative that we reduce costs while continuing to keep the community informed and doing all we can to retain jobs.
"The print suspension will allow us to assess the shape of the market itself and future conditions, taking into account how the coronavirus situation unfolds in the coming period," he said.
In some areas, the announcement has come within days of a reduction in the page size of community titles from 410mm to 350mm deep, promoted as an 'Exciting new era' offering 'More news, now easier to read'. The free Noosa News - for which 32,000 "readership" is claimed - went from a larger-size 68-page Friday issue (which included a 16-page Climate Change advertising supplement, inserts and a glossy 60-page real estate supplement) to 36 smaller pages on yesterday's traditionally-smaller edition (Tuesday).
• Australian publishers Nine and News have been accused of dual standards as they spruik free access to COVID-19 news while placing significant content behind paywalls.
News Corp Australia this week announced that all content across the company's digital metro and news apps was being provided "free for 28 days" to new subscribers.
But the New Daily's Andrew Tate warned that free subscriptions typically reverted to "the usual masthead fee" after an introductory period. He said Nine -which publishes The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald - had already been offering live blogs with most virus stories as a free service, while longer stories on the pandemic had remained behind a paywall.
In a statement on Monday, News executive chairman Australasia Michael Miller said "articles with a clear health focus" had already been made accessible to all, although experience of this suggested a limited definition. The '28-days-free' trial offered new customers "unlimited access to each participating website's full suite of content", with the following month half price.
Metro masthead websites - from the Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph, Courier-Mail and The Advertiser - their apps and mobile sites, and a 24-hour video stream of Sky News' COVID-19 channel were included, with the offer being extended to regional mastheads on Wednesday.
In the News statement, Miller acknowledges a responsibility "as clear as it is big" to keep the public informed and adapt to COVID-19's profound impact on Australia and the communities it serves.
Tate suggests consumers "may well want to read the fine print on subscription offers as companies seek to lock in those eyeballs for the future".
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