Ready, Aim, Charge!

By: Joe Strupp On the day Michael Jackson died, the Los Angeles Times drew its heaviest Web traffic ever. When Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina admitted to an affair, The State of Columbia, S.C., had the best online numbers in its history. And the day before Major League Baseball's All-Star Game in July, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch garnered more page views than ever before.

Three very different stories in very different cities ? but in each case these sites were a prime source of news for a certain time window, providing further proof that newspapers on the Web remain a top choice for breaking, local news.

But will readers pay for such material from these sites? And if so, what will they pay for, how much, and in what manner? As newspapers scramble to decide how best to increase revenue online, editors are desperately trying to figure out what content to charge for, while still keeping print viable and their Web numbers up.

Most newsroom leaders who spoke with E&P said no decisions have been made but admit they welcome a paid approach to online, noting that readers seem to be willing to pay for Web content that is useful, exclusive and/or in-depth. In each region, however, the definition of marketable content varies. Some editors believe everything is chargeable. Others point at sports, or find blogs and analysis the most sellable.

In St. Louis, "Cardinals content is probably something people would pay for," says Arnie Robbins, editor of the Post-Dispatch, who spoke just after his site's record 2.7 million page views inspired by the All-Star Game in July. "And politics is something people care about. Readers expect things to be free, but our content is worth something, and we have not done a good job of marketing ourselves."

Then there are those like Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Bill Marimow, who feel readers should pay for all of their online news, just as they do in print. "If someone does not subscribe to the newspaper, they should pay a fee to subscribe online," he declares. "If you want to read a story, you ought to pay. Someone, either the reader, the [Web] audience, or advertisers have to pay if we are going to provide this content."

Bob Mong, editor of The Dallas Morning News, believes his paper's Web content is worth paying for, but dismisses the idea of charging for all of it: "I don't feel too good about that. You lose too much of your audience," he says. He cites Dallas Cowboys coverage and micro-local neighborhood news as among the more marketable content.

Lessons from past attempts
But making readers pay is much easier said than done. Although the majority of newspaper Web sites have been around for 15 years or so, the number charging for access remains small.

The prevailing argument is that readers have become too accustomed to getting their news for free online ? and competition from other free, non-newspaper sites adds to the pressure, even as newspapers' Web ad revenue drops. Many editors cite these factors in dismissing the paid-Web idea.

Yet more and more publishers are declaring that the paid-Web route is the way to go.

Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of The Wall Street Journal and co-founder of Journalism Online, which is helping newspapers transition to paid content, claims that most editors he meets are in favor of the idea. "The model that most think is worthwhile is a hybrid of free and paid," he says. "For most, the vast majority would continue to access online without a payment. But the challenge is finding what you would charge for."

The trail of the paid-Web model is strewn with casualties from past attempts. The most famous: TimesSelect, The New York Times' pay wall that went up in 2005 and fell two years later, even after it convinced some 200,000 people to sign up and pay a monthly fee for Web access to columnists, video, archives and other services. Still, that hasn't stopped the Times from surveying readers about what model they might like, and hinting that it may look to charge again for at least some content.

"We are looking at a bunch of things," says Deputy Managing Editor Jonathan Landman. "You try to make these decisions as rigorously as you can. Trying to break down Internet pricing and place a dollar value is not a constant thing.

"When we did TimesSelect, we put a value on those things," he adds. "Was the value 50 bucks a year? I don't know. How do you balance those things with advertising? They are two potential sources of revenue."

When asked which items would be most valuable as chargeable content, Landman says, "loosely speaking, there is a lot of competition for business. Business stuff is valuable for us, certain arts are valuable for advertising. Those are issues that have to be decided. I don't have the answers today."

Another mistake has been walling off some sports coverage within a paid site. Both the Dallas Morning News and the Green Bay (Wis.) Press-Gazette tried hosting paid sites for coverage of their respective NFL teams years ago, but both were eventually spiked due to lack of revenue. "It became more and more difficult to maintain two sites," says Press-Gazette Executive Editor John Dye, who adds that a free Packers page was also in place at the same time as the paid site. "We did not think it was serving the purpose it should."

Still, both Dye and Morning News editor Mong say paid content is viable, even for sports, but it requires a different plan beyond focusing on one team. They admit they don't have a clear idea what's next. "Local sports is huge," Mong says. Adds Dye: "We have a strong following on our Web page for local news and Packer news. There will be a lot of trial and error."

Databases, local reporting key
While few editors will disclose any specific plans yet for charging on the Web, most cite "news you can't get anywhere else" as the elusive element they'd place behind a pay wall. That includes local sports, community news, exclusives, breaking news, and investigative projects. Others say that Web-only staples such as blogs, pages of data, documents and statistics, and video are also key.

"There may be an area of content that is breaking news and service," says Jim Willse, editor of The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. "By that I mean specialized data, material that a Web site creates and would be very hard to duplicate [elsewhere]."

Willse cites market-profile data like local real estate figures, school test scores, demographics and financial information. The Star-Ledger has long received praise and interest for its annual School Report Card that provides test scores and graduation rates for each public school in the state.

"There might be something in prep sports where the basic coverage of a game, box score and blogging are free," he adds. "But a higher level of [paid] content allows the user sophisticated manipulation of data."

Rex Smith, editor of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y., also views such facts and figures as a potential revenue source. "Everybody is putting this good data together," he says, citing his paper's salary information on state employees. "I would think if you have a good database, that is a place you would turn to." Robbins in St. Louis echoes that view, adding, "Databases would have a great opportunity: information that is not readily available."

Smith considers the Times Union's state politics blog, "Capitol Confidential," as another option. "It is by far the most popular blog," he says. "That would be the most logical place to start [charging]. Nobody has the reporting that newspapers have in covering your community." The paper's other blogs on the local restaurant scene and other lifestyle issues also get huge traffic, he adds: "They are popular enough that people would pay a little something for it."

But what is that "little something"? Few editors would commit to a specific price or formula.

In another state capital, St. Paul, Minn., Editor Thom Fladung of the Pioneer Press says there's so much competing statehouse coverage in his region that any related paid Web content would have to include an exclusive element or in-depth reporting to stand out: "Politics is very big here, that is something I would try. But there is the exclusivity." He cites online community discussions or interactive features as other pay candidates, but adds that local news can be the best content to sell: "Newspapers, even in our diminished state, are the only ones with a lot of reporters in a lot of places."

Fladung believes that a pay-one-price plan is probably not workable, given the different online offerings and readers' varying Web habits. "The model I've seen that most intrigues me is when it is tiered," he explains. "You pay the more you use it, and [print] subscribers get it for free."

Across the Mississippi River at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Editor Nancy Barnes excludes breaking news from the paid discussion. "There are too many sources for it," she says, adding that such stories "need to be free." She cites several exclusive types of stories that could be posted on a pay-only basis, from interviews to investigative series ? "content that doesn't make it to the Web sites of competitors," she adds. "We'd want to reward the people who would be paying."

Editors at two major metros, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, were mum about any plans to charge for their sites.

L.A. Times Editor Russ Stanton declined to comment, while the Post's Managing Editor Liz Spayd would only say, "we are looking at various paid models." She does admit, however, that charging for some of the paper's exclusive online content is a likely move: "If we don't figure out how to change the economic model, we will be in a financially difficult place. If we had the answers, we would have started it by now."

Premium coverage, at a price
For Ron Royhab, executive editor of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, charging on the Web has been a necessity going back to the first days of his site. But even he admits hesitancy about exactly how to do it. "I was one of the editors early on that would bring this up ? that editors were giving it away," he recalls. "We should be able to charge a reasonable price for a person to view the paper online as it is in print."

When asked about his current plans, Royhab says, "We are in the planning stages ? we need to come to a decision on how we are going to do it. It will become the norm." He also declines to speculate on which online elements would be more valuable.

Stan Tiner, executive editor of The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., makes no bones about the value of the online product, bragging that his paper is the top news source for his circulation area. "We probably provide 90% of the information that is consumed from this part of the world," he says, adding that print readers often ask him, "why are you giving it away on the Web?"

While specific plans are yet to be unveiled at Tiner's paper, he contends local news and in-depth reporting could prompt a pay-per-view type of charge. "I would worry a little bit about making it a complicated menu," he says. "Say if you wanted to buy any of the Sun Herald Web site, you can buy all of it or a small chunk of it." He cites an example of a big story such as a major crime or tragedy: "You could go in every day and pay, say, 50 cents [for all of the paper's content], or break it off and buy everything on [one] story for less. You could just get all of the coverage of that story."

In Rochester, N.Y., Editor Karen Magnuson of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle sees a similar appetite for local news in her market.

"I think paid would work in a place like Rochester because we would produce a site for news junkies," she says. "It would focus on the news of the day and special enterprise, or watchdog enterprise, and even profiles of people our readers would enjoy going deeper on." She adds that community involvement beyond just leaving comments could draw paid users.

Magnuson believes the use of two Web sites, one paid and one free, could work: "It would be a separate Web site ?that would be interesting to experiment with. Lots of local information, data, and if people have a topic they want to go deeper on, especially things like business, they go behind a pay wall."

At Greenwich Time and The Advocate in Stamford, two Hearst Connecticut papers overseen by Editor David McCumber, the task is to provide worthy content to both print and the Web, and often exclusive to either platform. One paid Web option, he says, is "when we go deep on a subject. Everything from databases to extra levels of information on a story ? tiered levels of information might be worth charging for. What is clear is that we want a very distinct offering of content on the Web from what we put in print."

McCumber, a former managing editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, says he adds himself to the list of editors who see local news as a premium product, as well as "blogs, for sure" and data: "It is a real growth area where we haven't even scratched the surface." Another local area of opportunity is high school and other local sports, McCumber contends. "Preps are huge, and I think there is an emerging strategy about that," he claims.

Editor Margaret Sullivan of The Buffalo (N.Y.) News points to the exclusivity element when asked what she would charge for online. "It is what people can't get anyplace else," she declares. "That is our specialty, our franchise and that could be anything from the investigative project that took six months to report to the high school sports agate." She also sees a pay model that would require a total access fee as the most likely to work, if any.

At The Miami Herald, however, Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal sees mobile devices as pay-for-content guinea pigs. The paper is about to roll out a paid service for Miami Dolphins content through wireless devices. "Premium sports coverage seems to have real value," he says. "We get people all the time who say they would love to contribute more than the price of the paper to support it. And mobile news pieces have been established as things people will pay for. They get used to it, and it is something they will accept."

Gyllenhaal also promotes the database idea, along with additional content on major stories or issues as pay options. "We have looked at a lot of project work that goes beyond what is in the paper," he adds, referring to investigations and series. "They have great value."

Not everyone is convinced
But Jim Witt, executive editor of the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, says a paid Web model may not work because there's so much similar content online that's free, regardless of the quality of his reporters: "The Cowboys are our No. 1 traffic driver because we get a lot of traffic for them from out of state. If we charged, there is so much other Cowboy stuff [out there] that it might turn to zero."

Other areas, such as investigative work or columnists, likewise seem like dead ends. "I can't see anyone subscribing to see our investigative work," Witt claims. "No one does it often enough to subscribe for it. Other investigative Web sites like ProPublica are popping up, and it doesn't get as many hits as other things."

The whole idea of charging for the Web "is delusional," declares Janet Coats, editor of The Tampa Tribune. "People have lost their minds. They need to have a cold cloth on their heads and go lay down for a while."

For Coats, a more aggressive approach to getting online ad revenue is the answer: "We have spent 15 years in this industry getting newsrooms to change. By God, they have changed. How much have things changed on the ad side?"


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