Resort Town Newspaper Says, Pay For It!

By: Steve Outing

In a USA Today article earlier this week, it was suggested that 1998 would be the year that more and more Web publishers will put a subscription fee on their content. The era of everything-is-free on the Web may start to be replaced by more sites beginning to charge for access to either premium or all online content.

Examples are starting to blossom. The Wall Street Journal Web site, of course, charges for access, as does Consumer Reports, Disney Daily Blast and The Economist. Business Week and Slate have announced that they will begin charging for their sites. Several sites have or plan a combination of free content and “premium” areas that require a subscription fee: Mercury Center, Entertainment Weekly, MSNBC.com, Salon, and ESPN, for example.

Too small to be noticed in that article is the Web site of the Telluride Daily Planet, a free-circulation, 5-day-a-week newspaper in the picturesque and remote Colorado ski town of Telluride. About six months ago, publisher Tony Daranyi, who owns the Planet and four other Colorado mountain town newspapers, decided it was time to charge Web users for the content being put online by the Planet.

Instead of the content of the newspaper being put on the Web for free, readers interested in Telluride news have to purchase a $35 per year subscription. That’s the same amount that it costs to have the printed Planet sent to you by surface mail. (Print mail subscribers receive a once-a-week bundle of the week’s five papers.)

1/4 of out-of-town subscribers read on the Web

To date, about 200 people have signed up for the $35 Web subscriptions. In comparison, about 600 receive print copies by mail. All of these subscribers are primarily out of town or out of state people with an interest in Telluride. Daranyi says that he’s seeing a clear trend, come subscription renewal time, for more print mail subscribers to switch over to a Web subscription.

While the Web numbers are modest, they are still significant when placed alongside the (free) circulation of the newspaper — 4,000 for the Monday-Thursday editions, and about 6,000 for the weekend edition produced on Fridays.

In town, the Planet is distributed freely to coffee shops, businesses, the ski resort, etc. The paper is not home-delivered, though that’s a future possibility. Predictably, most local readers simply pick up the newspaper in town, rather than read it on the Web.

Though he doesn’t have detailed demographic information on all his 200 Web subscribers, Daranyi does have considerable anecdotal evidence. The typical paid Web subscriber profile: individuals who have investments in the trendy resort town; people who own vacation homes in Telluride and spend only part of their time there; attorneys who live elsewhere but have clients in town; people who live in isolated areas and who want Telluride news but can’t easily get the print edition; and “friends of Telluride” who simply want to keep abreast of the goings-on. (In addition to the world-class ski resort, the town is home to the huge annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and numerous arts events.)

Free and paid content

The Planet has a two-sided Web site. While the content of the newspaper is behind the $35 subscription wall, a member of the Planet staff also produces a general Telluride Gateway Web site that’s free to access and includes tourist information and the newspaper’s classified ads. The free site is supported by advertising; it has had success in getting ads from the ski resort, lodging facilities, transportation companies, real estate firms, etc. — in short, anything to do with the town’s tourist industry. The newspaper’s ad sales staff sells Web ads mostly in packages with print, with the Web being a value-add. The paper also develops Web sites for local businesses.

What readers find on the paid Web site is little different from what’s in the newspaper. On the news side, one employee spends about 10 hours a week uploading newspaper stories to the Web site. Only rarely does non-print original content go on the Web. When singer Johnny Cash was on stage at the bluegrass festival last summer, for instance, the staff put a photo on the Web site even before he left the stage, says Daranyi. The other benefit for Web subscribers is that they see the day’s news the night before the print edition is distributed.

Daranyi says that switching the news content over to a paid site hasn’t really impacted the hits on his Web server, since there’s still much free information about Telluride. The free and paid sites currently get around 6,000 hits per day.

The move to paid Web subsriptions was not without controversy, however, and Daranyi says he has been the recipient of a lot of “bitching” by Web users, many of whom expect everything on the Web to be free. “But overall, other than having to duck some hate e-mail from the surfer community, it’s gone very well,” he says.

Daranyi disputes the notion that there is a “Web community” that expects Web content to be free. “(The Web) is such a new thing, we don’t think there’s such a thing as a Web culture yet,” he says. “The money has to flow in here somehow.”

At this point, the Planet’s Web site is bringing in enough money to pay for itself, but not much more. Daranyi will continue the experiment, but admits that if it fails, he’ll probably go back to having the site be free access and focusing more on advertising.

But because of the type of newspaper that the Planet is, with many of its readers scattered around the U.S., the subscription strategy just might work. It’s worth watching.

Contact: Tony Daranyi, tdplanet@sni.com

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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