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May 27 2011

18:00

Checking in with the Newport Daily News: Two years after a digital paywall, print is still king

Newport Daily News logo

The Newport (R.I.) Daily News might have been ahead of its time in offering the Frank Rich discount: The newspaper charges a hefty premium for digital-only access in hopes of boosting print subscriptions.

Two years have passed since the Daily News introduced a three-tiered paywall. At the time, executive editor Sheila Mullowney described the move not as a push toward digital, but as the opposite: a “print-newspaper-first strategy.”

That remains the case today.

“The print product is the thing really driving us at this point,” William Lucey, the Daily News’ publisher, told me. “As far the Internet goes, it really has not amounted to a hill of beans yet from a financial point of view.”

That sentiment is borne out in the Columbia Journalism School’s recent report on the business of digital journalism, which digs into the data:

The paper’s site, newportdailynews.com, gets around 80,000 visitors a month. Especially with online ad rates “dropping 20 percent a year,” that’s not enough to sustain the operation, which includes a newsroom of 22 people, Lucey says. Indeed, online ad revenue accounts for only 2 to 3 percent of total advertising for the paper.

After the change was put into effect, “our single-copy sales went up about 300 a day” — a bit less than 10 percent of overall single-copy sales. As the economy improves, “print is coming back. February [2011] was up 35 percent over last year” in ad sales.

As the Daily News has tweaked its price, it has preserved the print-first ethos. Earlier this year, the paper dropped its print+digital subscription price from $245 a year to $157 — a dollar more than the print-only price. A digital-only subscription, on the other hand, costs $345 a year.

The A.H. Belo-owned Providence Journal, the Daily News’ larger rival, has since announced its own paywall, expected to launch in the second half of 2011. Readers of that paper will have to pay for “original and proprietary content.”

It will be interesting to see whether the ProJo’s wall affects the Daily News. Last month I posed a far-flung hypothetical: Would readers pay for news if there were no free alternatives? In Slovakia, nine media companies are experimenting with a unified paywall — pay once for access to all — in an effort to reset years consumer assumptions about free content.

Rhode Island would seem to be (to an extent) a Slovakian analog in the United States. It’s a small, relatively uncompetitive, relatively isolated media market. Take Aquidneck Island (which is officially named, confusingly, Rhode Island), home to the 12,000-circulation Daily News. There’s some competition, sure: An ad-supported blog called Newport Now launched three months after the News’ paywall rose. And a year later, AOL’s Patch made its made its foray into Rhode Island with sites in Newport, Portsmouth, and Middletown — the whole of Aquidneck.

Still, once the ProJo paywall launches, we’ll have an interesting case study: If the only two papers covering Aquidneck are charging for access (and the ProJo hardly covers it like it used to) will citizens be more inclined to pay for online news?

The other question might be: Will that matter? In a piece examining “the uncertain future” of Rhode Island’s journalism scene, media critic David Scharfenberg described the dearth of social networking initiatives, inter-outlet collaboration, and other badges of innovation among the state’s media outlets. “What’s troubling about the Rhode Island mediascape,” he wrote, “is how slowly the players have moved to embrace this project — in an era when speed is nothing less than a matter of survival.”

But it could be that survival is a matter of sticking to roots, not branching out. If you view small newspaper publishing as a business, which it is, there’s still money in print. And it’s not as if the web has suddenly created a global audience for local news about Woonsocket, R.I. (No offense to Woonsocket, “a city on the move!”) Paywall or no paywall, the Daily News’ financial worth may lie in atoms, not bits.

And little Aquidneck Island not alone in that. “There still is value in print, no doubt about that,” the general manager of The Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune, has said. ”We shouldn’t be apologetic about it, we shouldn’t be embarrassed by it.”

January 06 2011

19:00

Dallas Morning News publisher on paywall plans: “This is a big risk”

In talking about the Dallas Morning News’ plans to begin charging for digital content next month, Jim Moroney is surprisingly candid about the decision and the economics of the industry. When the publisher of the News told his staff about the decision, he said they must be prepared to be ridiculed and vilified for putting their content behind a paywall.

“This is a big risk — I’m not confident we’re going to succeed,” Moroney told me. “But we’ve got to try something. We’ve got to try different things.”

Beginning February 15, the News will beginning charging for a majority of its content across its soon-to-be-redesigned website, its iPhone app, and a forthcoming iPad app. Print subscribers will get full access to everything for $33.95 a month, while those who eschew the paper can buy a subscription to the website and apps for $16.95. What’s unclear at the moment is how exactly the digital subscription will work given that Apple’s app store doesn’t allow for subscriptions (at least not yet, but that could be changing soon).

The move is not entirely a surprise given that other large metro papers, The New York Times and the Boston Globe, are developing paywalls. It’s also less of a surprise since A.H. Belo, parent company of the News, said in 2009 that it was considering switching some of its papers to paid sites. (A plan for the Providence Journal to go all-pay appears to have been changed or pushed back.)

What will readers have to pay for? Dallasnews.com exclusive reporting, for one thing, including its scoops on the biggest show around, Dallas Cowboys football. Free stuff will include breaking news, wire stories, obits, and blogs (which, curiously, could include sports coverage of the Cowboys).

Moroney is pragmatic about the paper going to a paid model. “It’s not an over-the-cliff strategy,” he said. “If this works, great, it’ll be fantastic. If it doesn’t, we can go back to providing access at a lower price or free.”

It’s an experimental approach that marks a shifted attitude toward paid content. In 2009, Moroney was one of several newspaper executives to testify at a Senate hearing on the future of newspapers. As he put it at the time, “If The Dallas Morning News today put up a paywall over its content, people would go to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.”

Now, though, as he sees it, the News and other papers have no choice but to change. “I don’t see impression-based advertising, the thing that paid bills for newspapers for so long, as supportable in the long run for a newspaper,” he said in our phone conversation. Moroney said he expects that pageviews will drop by half once the paywall is up, which is no small consideration given that the News has roughly 40 million pageviews a month. But even with growing pageviews and modest gains in online ad revenue in the industry, CPM prices are still low and ad inventory is up, Moroney said. And as he told Ken Doctor in a Newsonomics post last August, the days of newspapers living off the old “80/20″ rule are long gone.

Over the last few years, the News has reined in its circulation from far-flung areas (sorry, readers in Arkansas and Oklahoma), cut back third party copy sales, and increased its home delivery price, all with the idea of turning the Dallas Morning News (in all of its forms) into a product that makes money off specific, targeted audiences — rather than one that makes money on volume, Moroney said.

What the paper hopes will make the difference is a tiered system of access, from individual apps to the digital-only bundle and the full-blown subscription. In debuting an iPad app, it made sense to make all the paper’s digital offerings paid, Moroney said — otherwise, why would someone pay for an app when they can access DallasNews.com on a smartphone or tablet’s web browser? That becomes especially true as more publishers build HTML5 sites that can offer an engaging app-esque experience. “You have a website you can access with a browser that has the same look and feel of an app. How can you expect people to pay for one,” he noted, and not the other?

In its research to prepare for the site, the News found that there was willingness to pay for access to the site or various apps. While, because of the relative newness of the iPad, Moroney said he takes the data with a grain of salt, it was still positive enough to encourage the paper to create a paid strategy for its digital products.

“I don’t think we can wait,” Moroney said. “The business has enough uncertainty around it.”

May 06 2010

15:00

Hummel Report: Another nonprofit news org with an anti-govt.-waste message and conservative funding

Sheila Conlin is a veteran television journalist who currently works at NBC News Channel and is finishing up a master’s degree in journalism. As part of her degree, she put together the video report you see above, which takes an interesting look at how one TV reporter has reinvented himself as a one-man band against government waste — with support from a conservative group that would like to see those stories inspire a smaller government.

Laura wrote about the phenomenon in February, noting two states (Connecticut and New Jersey) among many where conservative groups are funding investigative reporters to dig up examples of government waste, fraud, and abuse. In Conlin’s piece, in Rhode Island, it’s the nonprofit Hummel Report, produced by Jim Hummel, a former Providence Journal and WLNE-TV reporter who gained attention for his “You Paid For It” segments on the evening news.

Hummel’s business partner in the project is William J. Felkner, who along with being The Hummel Report’s director of operations is also the founder and CEO of the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, which describes its work as “crafting sound public policy based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, and traditional American values.” Ocean State is listed as a sponsor of The Hummel Report, and the organization’s logo is all over its pages.

Now, I happen to believe that whatever their politics, projects like The Hummel Report are a good thing. I’d rather see more reporting — even if some of it is motivated or funded by political interests — than less reporting. The audience can make its own judgments. But it’s worth noting, as we’ve said before, that the new wave of nonprofit news organizations everyone hears about (ProPublica et al.) will face a messaging challenge to distinguish themselves from partisan-funded operations on both the left and right.

In Conlin’s piece (stick with it through the 1:30 intro), Hummel says he has “total editorial control over my content — who can say that?” And I’m sure that’s true. But as decades of local TV news segments with names like “You Paid For It” have shown, the format and principles of the medium can influence the kinds of stories that get done — even without any outside interference. Here’s Hummel in the piece, talking about how he’s asking corporations to sponsor his project:

The corporations I’m approaching, I believe in. I think they’re good corporations. That doesn’t mean at all that I wouldn’t investigate if I heard something. But I just don’t go — I’m not equipped to go after a lot of private companies because — it’s just a public records issue. They can tell me to, you know, get off the property and “we don’t have to tell you anything.” Government is and should be accountable.

Hummel’s pitch to corporations: “We work for Rhode Island, but we can’t survive without the support of the business community. The more waste and corruption we expose, the less you have to pay for.”

Focus on government corruption and conservatives will cheer. Focus on corporate malfeasance and liberals will applaud. I just hope, in the end, we’ll have some of both.

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