Premium tier subscriptions for local news: Ad-free and beyond

People are paying for ad-free website access, and engaging well with other exclusive features

Ryan Nakashima
10 min readAug 20, 2020


Construction of The Mercury News sign in San Jose, Calif., on Sept. 30, 2014. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

As we near the end of our Google News Initiative-funded project period this fall, I can’t help but look back in amazement at how much we’ve accomplished in a year.

We launched four key features intended to increase revenue and drive user engagement, all focused on improving the experience for paying customers. Paid ad-free website access is now available on 13 local news websites, including The Mercury News, The Orange County Register, Press-Enterprise and more. Subscribers in the thousands are paying more for this premium tier. And engagement is steadily rising with location-aware news experiences and live virtual event attendance.

These are important wins.

Across the newspaper industry, print circulation continues to decline and advertising dollars continue to flow to other platforms, which has caused furloughs, layoffs and closures.

On top of all that, the COVID-19 pandemic has seriously hurt advertising revenue, pushing many companies into crisis mode. Meanwhile, protests around social injustice and inequality have made us think twice about access to information.

I believe premium service tiers like the one we are developing have a place amidst this turmoil. Even as we ask people to pay more, we should work toward finding sustainable ways of providing free access to our essential journalism to those who can’t.

But let’s back up to where this journey began…

Several years ago, I was a journalist. Most recently, a technology reporter at The Associated Press, where I worked for 13 years. For most of that time, I covered the media business: movie studios and recording…



Ryan Nakashima

Director, Product Management, Subscriptions, Hearst Newspapers. 2016–17 John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford. Former AP technology writer. Problem solver, dad.