USA Today's subscription page.

With the digital advertising marketplace dominated by Facebook and Google and regularly offering lower and lower ad rates, more and more publishers that once depended on a free advertising-based model for their digital content are shifting to a paywall subscription model. The latest is Gannett’s USA Today, which is transitioning to a paywall, but plans to keep a fair bit of its news in front of that. Here’s more on that from a piece they published both online and in their print edition Wednesday, bylined from publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth and editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll.

Each month, about 90 million unique visitors come to USA TODAY’s digital platforms for investigations that change laws and lives, smart sports analysis, expert science and health reporting, and entertainment and consumer news to help you make the most of your time and money.

We’ve become part of your daily news habit, and we’re honored to serve you.

Now we’re asking our readers to help support premium journalism.

Much of the content on USA TODAY will still be free. But you’ll find a selection of stories each day marked “subscriber only.” These will be exclusive investigations, sophisticated visual explainers, thought-provoking takes on the news and immersive storytelling.

That piece also notes that they’re planning to invest further in investigative reporting, visualizations, and more. Marc Tracy of The New York Times has more on this pivot:

The announcement could prove just the beginning of USA Today’s transition into a subscription company, Mayur Gupta, Gannett’s chief marketing and strategy officer, said in an interview, pointing to USA Today-branded destinations for sports betting and games. It might also make sense in the future for Gannett to offer subscriptions that bundle USA Today and a local newspaper, he said.

“It’s inevitable that at some point we will create a much stronger value proposition from stitching it all together,” said Mr. Gupta, a former executive at the streaming giant Spotify.

…In an interview, Ms. Perez Wadsworth promoted the strengths of the so-called USA Today Network, which includes the local papers published by Gannett in 46 states such as The Arizona Republic and The Detroit Free Press.

“The fact that we have the deep roots, expertise and trust in the local markets is an enormous strength, for those brands and for USA Today, because our national report is informed by that expert local knowledge,” she said.

More details on USA Today‘s new subscription plans are available here. There are three plans available: a regular digital subscription, an ad-free digital subscription, and a print subscription with regular digital access. They’ll start at $4.99, $7.99 and $9.99 a month respectively, with eventual prices of $9.99, $12.99 and $29.25 a month respectively.

This is a big move for USA Today, and it’s a big move for sports consumers in particular. USA Today has remained one of the main sources for sports content available without a paywall, especially as ESPN has moved more and more of their written content behind the ESPN+ paywall (which started with already-paywalled “Insider” content, but now encompasses a whole lot more, including most of their commentary and analysis). And Sports Illustrated, which also used to be free (ad-supported), implemented their own paywall earlier this year.

There used to be many other sources for free (ad-supported) sports news, but many of those have taken hits of their own in the past few years, including major layoffs at Yahoo, NBC’s sites, SB Nation, Fox Sports (now being slightly rebuilt, but with an uncertain future), and others. It’s unclear if this USA Today move will also lead to some or most of their For The Win (a site that just got a new managing editor in Alex McDaniel) content being put behind the paywall, but if it does, that’s another free sports site declining. Even if it doesn’t, though, USA Today proper has been a go-to resource for many people for sports stories (and stories outside of what FTW does), and some of those may now be inaccessible without a subscription.

While this is a blow for people used to reading USA Today sports content for free, though, it’s understandable why Gannett is doing this. As mentioned above, the economics of digital advertising are getting tougher and tougher, especially for companies that aren’t Facebook (which also owns Instagram) or Google. And Perez Wadsworth told Tracy they’ve had success with a subscription test pilot, saying “When we focus on what’s unique and exclusive to us, our readers do make choices to subscribe.” And considering that just about everyone else has a paywall these days (including many of Gannett’s local papers), it may make some sense for USA Today to follow suit.

So this may work out for Gannett in the long run. Or it may not; maybe there won’t be as much demand for USA Today content digitally now it’s no longer free. We’ll see how that goes. Either way, it’s definitely notable that one of the few remaining non-paywalled big news and sports outlets is going to a paywall, even if that’s only for some of their content.

[The New York Times, USA Today]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.