It was just over a year ago that a college newspaper in Oklahoma became a digital media pioneer.

In what was believed to be a first for a college news outlet, The Daily O’Collegian at Oklahoma State University began charging for online content. Sure, the Wall Street Journal, Times of London and other professional publications had already gone for pay walls, but college newspapers are known for being a free and readily available resource on campus and online. As one commenter put it when the news broke, “They might as well charge a million dollars.”

Bloggers and media watchers shared the skepticism. Why restrict access to work by student journalists who need all the exposure they can get? Who would pay for student content? Should they even have to, given that student newspapers are more about training future journalists and serving a campus community than turning a profit?

The O’Colly’s decision to charge was more of a “why not?” than a grab for riches or precedent. General manager Ray Catalino figured it was worth placing a value on the outlet’s content, and said he’d be happy if 100 subscribers signed up in the first year.

With that year now up, how is it going? Was it indeed a pioneering move in the march to monetize online content, or another failed experiment in the wild west of the web world?

Of course, the answer isn’t simple or even fully formed yet.

The Update

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The O’Collegian worked with a company called Press+ to launch what both call a “metered system” in March 2011. After viewing three free articles within a month, readers outside a 25-mile radius of the Stillwater campus and without an .edu email address were asked to pay $10 for a year of unlimited access. Those who said yes will be automatically renewed each year unless they cancel.

Press+ launched in 2010 and counts media entrepreneur Steven Brill among its three co-founders. The company works primarily with professional outlets to monetize online content through donation solicitation and metered systems. (Brill repudiates the term “pay wall” because readers are usually given some free content before being asked to pay. Others just call that a softer pay wall.)

A year in, Catalino’s admittedly informal goal of 100 paid subscribers was met and exceeded. On the one-year anniversary, there were 156 paid subscribers, and as of last week there were 177. Not a windfall, considering the paper has a print circulation of 25,000 and a regular online audience of 2,000, but enough that Catalino recently upped the annual fee to $15 for new subscribers.

There wasn’t any national news on the OSU campus that might have lured a burst of new paid subscribers. They came slow and steady, never exceeding three per day. Looking ahead, Catalino has budgeted $3,000 to $4,000 in revenue from online subscribers for the next fiscal year — again, a mere drop in the outlet’s $700,000 budget, but a drop nonetheless.

“The pay wall to me is almost a no-brainer,” Catalino said. “It’s very simple to implement; it’s basically a technical change, and the money comes in. And as long as you’re providing good content, it continues. So it has very little cost, has a nice upside and very little downside, in my opinion.”

So how is it going? Well enough that the O’Colly will keep charging, and might even further up the price if readers continue to show a willingness to pay. But it’s no cash cow and likely won’t be anytime soon.

The Impact

Once anathema in the wide open world of the Internet, the idea of charging for online news content is becoming more comfortable for publishers squeezed by plummeting print subscriptions, declining ad sales, and few other revenue options.

Press+ began with 24 clients. Another 300 have signed up since then, and still more are devising their own pay systems and seeing some success, the most prominent example being The New York Times. Those who sign up with Press+ generally pay a set-up fee of a few thousand dollars and hand over 20 percent of revenue.

The O’Collegian was the company’s first college publication, but others quickly followed suit, including Boston University’s Daily Free Press, the Kansas State Collegian and Tufts University’s Tufts Daily. Grant money from the Knight Foundation covered the set-up fee for those that got in early, including the O’Collegian, but Press+ now offers colleges a 90 percent discount on set up as an enticement.

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Steven Brill. Press+ photo.

Brill says college newspapers are not a huge business priority for Press+ and counts about 50 on the client list, but he predicts that more and more will turn to the company for help with either seeking donations (the option most current clients choose) or charging for online content.

“We wanted to seed the landscape there and have them benefit from it,” Brill said of colleges. “We’ll probably have twice the number today by next winter. It’s worked well, and it’s easy. It doesn’t take any work on their part. It’s found money.”

Brill says the company’s geo-location technology is crucial for college outlets because they can aim pay requirements solely at readers outside the campus community, preserving limitless access for students, faculty members, and local residents. If a mega-story breaks and a college newspaper wants full exposure for its content, it can exempt that coverage from the metered system.

The Implications

So the Press+ client list proves that at least some college papers are willing to ask online readers for money, and OSU’s first year suggests that at least some readers are willing to comply. Neither addresses the question of whether student publications should make this move.

Dan Reimold, a journalism professor and student media adviser at the University of Tampa in Florida, wrote in January 2010 that college media “should ignore the siren song of pay walls.” Why? Because as professional outlets increasingly wall off their online content, college media might become a viable alternative for readers, and because student journalists deserve maximum exposure for their work.

Reimold’s opinion today is essentially unchanged. He applauds the O’Collegian for taking the lead on new ways to make money. And he obviously recognizes the significance of their decision to charge, because he broke the news of it on his blog, College Media Matters, in January 2011. But he worries about the long-term implications of a world in which online student content is increasingly restricted.

“I still feel strongly that it is not such an effective revenue technique that it should trump the main purpose of the student press, which is enabling students to get exposure for their work and hopefully join a larger conversation that will help them learn more about the process of reporting things to the world,” Reimold said. “The learning vehicle aspect should trump the notion of restricting access.”

Brill counters that his company has found no evidence that charging for content restricts the number of unique visitors to a site. If people don’t want to pay, they might stop reading for that month, but they return the next month.

Personally, I’m not convinced that access to a student’s work, and therefore valuable exposure for that student, remains unchanged in a pay wall world. How can it, when a reader might have read 10 stories but stops at five because he or she won’t pay for more?

At the same time, I’m not sure the siren song should be avoided. Professional news publications must find new revenue sources to survive, and their online content does have value. If readers don’t agree, that’s that. But if they are willing to pay, and remarkably it looks like many are, then why not keep this trend rolling? And why not train future publishers, editors and reporters (not to mention consumers) that it’s OK to put a price on such work?

Alexa Capeloto is a journalism professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York. She earned her master’s degree at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and spent 10 years as a metro reporter and editor at the Detroit Free Press and the San Diego Union-Tribune before transitioning into academia.

Correction: This story has been corrected to show that Press+ gives a 90 percent discount to college papers on set up fees, not 10 percent as the source originally reported.