Delivering the E-Paper: New Concept That's Old

By: Steve Outing The model that most newspaper Web sites operate with has yet to prove itself. Few newspaper sites are making money, but many are spending lots of it. The typical newspaper online operation has not yet succeeded. So why not try something different from the approach taken by most everyone else?

With that logic, the New York Post is about to try something new -- but the approach contains some of the old, as well. Later this year it will begin selling electronic versions of the newspaper, using the ViaPublishing system developed by DeskGate Technologies of Washington, D.C. That's right, it will charge consumers cash, just like it charges readers of its print edition -- in contrast to the vast majority of newspaper Web sites, which offer all of their content online for free.

The idea is old because it falls back on the basic tenet of newspaper publishing: charge the reader for home delivery of your content. It's new because this digital form of selling newspapers supports e-commerce throughout the readership chain. A paying reader of a digital publication using DeskGate's system can pass along a copy of the publication to another person, and the system will require the pass-along reader to pay as well.

Slow-moving paper

The Post is not a newspaper that's taken things digital all that seriously. Until a couple years ago, the paper's content was not even archived electronically. It does have a Web site, and a successful one at that; the site recently has recorded about 4.7 million page views a month, according to new media director Barry Mechanic. The site contains limited content -- primarily the top stories of the day's Post, amounting to about half of what's in the print edition -- and operates without additional staff beyond Mechanic's group which maintains it with the help of existing print editorial staff.

The Web site will be mostly unaffected by the subscription strategy, and will continue to offer for free highlights of the Post's print editions. But Mechanic believes that there may be a market for people who want to read the full edition (or parts of it) and are willing to pay a modest price to have it delivered to them electronically. The Post is lucky in that there are so many displaced New Yorkers scattered around the world, so perhaps they will buy into the "digital home delivery" idea.

To be sure, some of the free Web site's regular users may opt to buy digital delivery and stop visiting the site, but Mechanic doubts it will do much to cannibalize Rather, he strongly believes there is a market for electronic versions of newspapers, which could nicely supplement advertising revenues from the Web site. He expects to continue to expand and improve on the Web site as well, so the delivery model is not meant to displace the Web.

How much an electronic subscription to the Post might be when the service debuts in a couple months is still undecided, but Mechanic thinks it's likely to be no more than what the print edition costs. The service will probably offer full content of the newspaper, and/or selected sections, such as Sports. Delivery editions might be purchased as monthly subscriptions, or as a per-edition purchase.

Stuffing envelopes

The DeskGate technology basically allows publishers to package content into an electronic envelope, then mail it out via what is really nothing more than a sophisticated e-mail list application. According to Chip Venters, DeskGate's vice president of marketing, the system encrypts and compresses the content, then mails it out to customers via e-mail. Typically, publishers will send out either HTML files (Web pages) or PDF documents (which are larger).

This is not much different from some other digital delivery or "push" technologies that have appeared in the Internet marketplace in the last couple years. What makes it different, however, is the technology's ability to keep track of who's reading the content that it transmits, and charge those people for access to the content since the payment system is carried along with the content as it is delivered.

Venters explains that a subscriber to, say, the Post's service could send along a copy of a digital edition to another person, and the subscription management system travels with the content. When that person seeks to open the content, the system checks the individual's hard drive to see if he already subscribes to the Post e-mail subscription service. If not, then the person is prompted with options for paying for a subscription or one-time fee in order to view the content. In this way, the system protects the publisher's copyright as the content is redistributed through the online world -- and spreads word about the e-mail subscription service, as well.

Not every publisher will want to charge for electronic delivery of its content. The DeskGate system also supports requiring delivery customers to provide demographic information in lieu of cash payment; that is, when trying to access the content, a non-subscribing user must fill out a form that is sent back to the publisher before the consumer is allowed to view the content. Thus, advertisers are offered much improved target marketing.

Venters says that ads can be delivered resident in the electronic envelope that subscribers receive. An innovative feature allows publishers to sell ads in a sort of "card deck" model, where an advertiser can be the first ad that comes up when any page of the total content package is viewed by the subscriber, or be the first ad viewed when a subscriber goes to any sports page, for example.

New/old business model

The system will work best when a publication's Web site offers limited content, which serves as a teaser to full content available via an e-mail service that requires either cash payment or demographic data about the consumer. Venters says the concept is an improvement over the standard Internet publishing model, and clearly runs counter to the dominant Web publishing trends. "We think it's a new media model," he says.

Many publishers, says Venters, want to figure out how to go back to a controlled-circulation model on the Web. They are not comfortable -- nor have they figured out how to profit -- in an environment where they must give up their content in an open way, not knowing much about their online users nor getting any of their money. Perhaps this is a way to go back to a simpler way of doing business.

Mechanic is not betting his house on the approach, yet he's optimistic. Other newspaper publishers have tried sinking large sums of money into their Web sites, yet haven't yet seen significant financial returns. He views this as an experiment to see if the public will support the idea. "In our view, the marketplace will tell us if this will work," he says. At this early stage, "we can't tell if the market wants this."

Contacts: Barry Mechanic,
Chip Venters,


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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

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


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