The Philadelphia Inquirer, known locally as the "Inky," is making the plunge to online paid subscriptions and cementing a trend that now appears unstoppable across the primary and secondary urban markets in the U.S. Terciary local papers to date have had more difficulty charging for their content in a manner that does not cannabalize paper subscriptions. The Philly paper has had a troubled half decade, with a new owner every 10 months or so, but it remains one of the great secondary city newsrooms, with an honest-to-goodness investigative staff. That sort of unique content creation may be a factor in which papers can make the paywall move successfully.
Before the New York Times went to the paywall (the Wall Street Journal started off behind the wall), it was difficult for a dominant local paper to charge for online content when a locally popular national paper remained free. Now that papers like the Times, the Boston Globe and others have bitten the circulation bullet, lesser markets such as Burlington's the Burlington Free Press (BFP) have girded themselves recently and joined the trend.
The BFP example is notable as a single paper within Gannett's galaxy of papers, as Gannett has made a rolling process of moving some of its properties into paid status with a limited "freemium" model, where visitors can view only a limited number of stories for free.
Unspoken in the rush to the paid model is the fact that the resulting severe decline in pageviews vastly reduces avails for advertisers. This has been less of a perceived obstacle for newspaper publishers, as the online advertising has not proven a one-to-one replacement of revenues from the paper version and the associated print advertising revenues. Thus limiting that advertising inventory isn't much of a price to pay for subscriber cash.
Local newspapers typically have a conditioned behavior lock on local advertisers, which has resulted over time in quite a notable premium paid for local newspaper ads relative to other media. In the BFP's rural Northeast market, for instance, newspaper ads run at CPMs between $10 (classifieds-oriented papers) and $250 (dominant tertiary town newspapers). Their online efforts have not been able to command those prices in the face of locally targeted Facebook ads costing $0.20 CPM.
In that context, moving to subscription revenue can look like the best or only option for online revenue streams - so long as the competition moves their as well.