Debate: Should All of Your Print News Go Online?

By: Steve Outing As anyone who's followed the newspaper industry's forays into cyberspace knows, newspaper Web sites are not always consistent in terms of strategy. One of the biggest differences you'll find among newspaper publishers is how they treat print-edition news on their Web sites. Some papers put all their current news on the Web, often in advance of when consumers can get the printed newspaper. Others eschew news on their Web sites, preferring not to compete online with their own print products. Still others publish only "teasers" or selected stories on the Web, hoping that their online customers will be driven to the print product.

Putting all your print news on a free-access Web site can be scary for some publishers, who rightfully fear that local-market print readers might decide to save money and get their local news online and cancel their print subscriptions. Yet when the decision is made as a defensive posture to keep print news off-line, the publisher is passing over potential opportunities for growth outside their local market via the online medium.

For some newspapers, putting all of their news on the Web is a "no-brainer." The Christian Science Monitor fits this category, as a newspaper with a national and international audience. The Monitor's Web site, says supervising online editor Tom Regan, offers "a more immediate and cost-efficient way of getting our news literally around the world" than the slow postal mail subscriptions that most Monitor readers relied on for years. The paper quite simply uses the Web to reach new audiences -- who have not experienced the print product before. "We see the Web as a new revenue source," says Regan. "Unlike many papers, we've probably sold more subscriptions to the paper (as a result of the Web site) than we've lost."

There are many other examples, where newspapers are using the Web to reach new audiences with their news content. National newspapers like USA Today and the New York Times extend the reach of the publications' news to those who might never subscribe to the print products. Regional newspapers like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, which have a national reputation but not widespread national print distribution, can put their full news content on the Web and use it as a national platform and new revenue source. And specialty newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, which charges a subscription fee for its Web site, can build new audiences that might in part come from existing print subscribers switching over to Web viewing, but result in a substantial net audience gain.

What's to gain?

Where the issue gets less clear-cut is with small and medium size local and regional papers. Here, issues of cannabilization from publishing print news online are legitimate and some publishers have a hard time finding a rationale for putting full news content on the Web.

Pete Selkowe of the Journal Times in Racine, Wisconsin, explains why his paper does not choose to put all its news on its Web site: "ALL of our paying customers live here, and pay good money to receive our news product. What could we possibly gain from putting our editorial content on the Web? Answer: ego readership from far away and perhaps cannibalization locally from subscribers who learn they can get something for nothing. Add to that the costs of moving the print edition to the Web and you have a no-win situation."

But, Selkowe says, "we're no Luddites." The Journal Times' Web site features half a dozen news stories daily, births and deaths, calendar listings, and archived information in news, classifieds, real estate listings, etc. He expects to offer more news online over time, though not everything from the newspaper.

At Indianapolis Newspapers (Indiana), the newspaper's legacy technology -- an aging Atex system which is now being replaced by a publishing database environment -- prevented the papers' Web site from running more than selected print-edition stories. Once the transition is over and publishing news from the newspaper to the Web is easy, online general manager Jay Small says the full news content from the papers "likely will be behind a subscription wall. Is that crazy, in light of all the people who tried it and failed? Maybe, but we aren't setting our sights on big numbers here ... The objectives are a) come hell or high water, to set a value for our content, and b) to build a database of registered, premium users even though we know we'd get more traffic if we put it all up for free," he says.

The subscription-wall strategy for full print news content published online has other adherrents as well. The Chronicle for Higher Education does this, selling combined print subscriptions (weekly publication) and online access (the Academe Today daily online news service). The San Jose Mercury News' Mercury Center service for some time has put much of its news content behind a Web subscription wall.

The Chronicle's Phil Semas, associate editor for new media, says, "I wonder why more papers haven't tried that model for at least some of the content."

Perhaps they will. Mary Kress, managing editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, says currently virtually all locally generated content is published on the paper's Web site -- from obituaries to classifieds to police news -- and it's available free. "But just because it's free today doesn't mean it will always be free," she says. "Part of what we all are doing is establishing brand and credibility in a new medium. Those who are successful may someday be able to capitalize on their reputation."

Not all the news that's fit to ...

Putting selected news content online is a fairly common strategy among small and medium sized papers. At The Sentinel in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the paper's Web site includes 5- to 6-paragraph summaries of the top six or so stories of the day. Explains Internet director Kurt Wanfried, "We feel this way our paying newsprint customers receive a better news report" and there's little incentive for dropping a print subscription. Wanfried thinks that the Web site offers enough news to satisfy people outside the area -- such as those who've moved away. The site also includes daily obituaries, sports, calendar events and local "evergreen" information.

At the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Robert Niles, executive producer of the newspaper's Web site, advocates concentrating a newspaper Web staff's effort on content other than what can be repurposed from the print edition. "If subscribers make a habit of coming to your Web site to get information before it hits their doorsteps, I think you run the risk that those subscribers will decide to save a few bucks and quit having the paper come to their door in the morning," he says. "(And) if your entire paper is online, why would a Web reader have any reason to pick up a print edition?"

Niles says concentrate on things the online medium can facilitate but print cannot, such as providing up-to-the-minute news updates; allowing users to post opinions; empowering readers to publish news and information about their lives; etc. "Do these things," he says, "and subscribers will have a reason to come to the Web site. That way you'll be building market share instead of transferring share from one publication (print) to another (online)."

Why you should 'just do it'

For other newspapers, the view is that publishing full news content on their Web sites is both beneficial and a wise long-term strategy -- despite concerns about cannibalization. At Augusta, Ga.-based Morris Communications, which owns small and medium sized newspapers throughout the southern and central U.S., "we generally publish (on our Web local sites) most of what is in the print edition and enhance the product from there," says Michael Romaner, who heads up the company's new media operations. "Our thinking is that readers are increasingly demanding our information products -- including news -- in online format. ... To be successful in the long run, we have to give our readers what they demand."

Romaner says there are quite a few anecdotal experiences where readers have canceled the print edition because of the paper's online product, "but not enough to scare us. When this happens in significant numbers, I believe we will then be justified in moving to a site access fee."

At the Detroit News, Internet manager Nancy Malitz explains her paper's decision to put all of the news on the Web for free this way: "Our goal is simple: Extension of the brand to a new generation that is wired, and to an older generation that has come to see the Web as an additional information source."

"With regard to putting up only a few stories instead of the whole mix, my view is that right now there isn't much local Detroit news on the Web," Malitz says. "The only companies doing it are the area's local newspapers, so we pretty much have a lock on it. It's our market to lose." She believes that withholding news from the Web site is counter-productive in the long run. "To think that we can force (a customer) to retain his print subscription (over the long term by withholding news from the paper's Web site) is unrealistic," for he'll drift off to some other online source. So it's better to offer the alternative reading option on the Web and maintain that person as a customer.

Todd Engdahl, new media editor for the Denver Post, mirrors that line of thinking. "As for protecting the core product, people who are more inclined to get news online will do that anyway, even if we don't publish online," he says. "They'll just go to someone else's online service, not back to the printed product."

And at the Intelligencer and Record, which covers the region north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Eric Johnston of the newspaper's new media department says that when the Web site was set up a year ago, there was much concern over this issue. But the final decision was made to include all local material from the print edition online.

"We are not a major metro paper with a circulation of millions, so our local readership is vital to us," Johnston says. "However, the fear that people would drop the print edition to read it online was not as threatening as those who would drop the print to read our competition's product."

A final note

In the interest of clarity, let me point out that the issue raised in this column is about whether a newspaper should publish all of its news content on its Web site, or hold back. This is not to say that news should be the exclusive component of any newspaper site; it's merely one element. I, nor I think anyone quoted in this article, would not advocate that news alone makes a successful newspaper Web site.


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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

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


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