On the Bay Citizen's weekend edition, the burning-someone-else's money (but still free) publication reports (sort of) on the Hearst Corporation's sudden decision to (maybe) put a majority of the free content on SFGate.com behind a restrictive paywall. According to the Bay Citizen's many anonymous sources within the city's paper of record, it would appear much of the staff is convinced their parent company will begin charging for a large majority of SFGate.com's currently free content before the end of the month. Unfortunately, none of them seem sure enough about the details to go on the record about it.
If the speculation from unnamed staffers turns out to be true, a digital subscription could end up running readers $9.95 a month and only "short, daily news pieces and breaking stories" would remain free of charge. Contrast that with a plan like the New York Times' recent paywall announcement which allows non-subscribers to view 20 articles per month and doesn't block out users who come from search engines or other social media sources - and you begin to see the speculated "hard paywall" at the Chronicle would mean cutting off a huge chunk of the online audience for a site that actually does well in Internet traffic.
As it stands currently, the Chronicle encourages subscriptions by blocking access to certain embargoed stories that appear in print two days before they become available online. The Bay Citizen piece neglects to look in to the impact these embargoes have had on single-issue sales or circulation numbers, but if we take yesterday's big story, Michael Bauer's revised Top 100 list as anecdotal evidence: you've probably noticed the Internet has already ripped all the meat off of that story. And as far as we know, only one person actually bought a paper to read it.
Still, over here at SFist, we're not getting fired up about what this could mean for our own traffic numbers (or, gross, our comment section) just yet. Most of the details mentioned are qualified as "in flux" and reporters at the paper have mentioned, "Many staffers still have no clear idea of exactly what the changes will look like." So, yes: many grains of salt.