Searchable Database Drives Publisher's Paid Online Subscriptions

By: Steve Outing

Military City Online (MCO), the Web service of Virginia-based Army Times Publishing Co., has taken the next step in its evolution into a profitable online newspaper operation. It appears to have found a strategy that combines a solid advertising base for free online content with a subscription base for paid content.

"We designed this from the start to be a significant profit center," says the site's top editor. "We're not (operating in the online environment) just to dip our toe into the water."

Army Times publishes newspapers that serve the U.S. military community: Army Times, Air Force Times, Navy Times, and the Marine Corps Edition of Navy Times; as well as Federal Times (serving the federal civil workforce), Defense News and Space News (business to business publications). The company is in the process of being acquired by the Gannett Co.

Last month, the company expanded its military newspapers' presence on the World Wide Web, adding full content of the publications to the papers' respective Web sites for those with paid subscriptions. Before, the sites included only highlighted news from the newspapers (as well as many other military-oriented features and services).

According to Military City Online content editor Lee Ewing, the change instituted last month is in adding value to the paid portion of the Web sites, in expectation of increasing paid online subscriptions. But it's not editorial content that's been driving paid subscriptions up till now.

MCO's killer app

MCO's "piece de resistance," says general manager Rick Peck, is a searchable database of 10 million active-duty, reserve and retired U.S. military service personnel. In order to search the database on the Web, you have to have a subscription to MCO and its military newspapers. The cost is $4 per month, or $1 a month for existing print subscribers. (The military Times printed newspapers cost $52 per year.)

The personnel database has been very popular, and has helped generate about 4,000 paid subscriptions to the MCO Web site in the last six months. It is the most popular and well used feature of the site, and many users have told the MCO staff about using the database to track down long-lost friends.

It just goes to demonstrate that editorial news content repurposed online is not nearly enough to attract Web consumers, says Peck. What's really important and will add enough value to succeed online are interactive features like searchable databases and archives, online chat, etc.

The basic idea for MCO is to offer a suite of editorial and database services -- enough to warrant a modest monthly fee. In addition to the personnel database access and full online content of the four military Times newspapers, paying subscribers get access to a four-year electronic archive of the papers and an "Early Bird" news summary feature. Early Bird is the name of a Pentagon-produced news summary of press articles that is shipped out daily to military officers around the world and is extremely popular. MCO takes the Pentagon's Early Bird and creates its own "Early Bird Brief," rewriting and summarizing stories from the Pentagon Early Bird. This online Early Bird is available to anyone, not just officers and commanders.

The MCO and Times Web sites are designed with a great deal of free content (including a truncated version of the Early Bird Brief), and advertising, although it started modestly, is growing and pays for the free side of the online service. Peck expects Web advertising to bring in more revenues than subscription fees. Like at many online publications, Peck says he is trying to strike a balance with multiple revenue streams. Online advertising shows particular promise, he says, because online it is possible to target certain segments of the military population -- a big advantage over print.

MCO has been operating online since June 1994, when it launched an area on America Online that began operating profitably fairly quickly. MCO Web Outpost started in February 1996, and the capital investment costs for that project knocked the operation back into the red. Pecks says that in three of the last 18 months the overall online operation was profitable, but the situation now points to consistent profitability within a few months.

To date, the site has not been promoted much in the Army Times print publications, but that is changing. With the added features of the paid edition now in place, a promotion campaign is beginning.

Non-subscribing readers

Peck expects that many print readers who learn about the online service through the print editions of Army Times newspapers will sign up for the $4 per month online service. Print subscribers get the lower $1 rate, but the papers have an average pass-along rate of 7. Thus, many print readers are not subscribers and don't qualify for the lower online rate. Peck says he has a bet with the company's circulation director. Peck thinks that 75% of online paying subscribers will be paying $4 per month; his colleague thinks 75% will get the $1 a month rate.

The Military City Online operation (which includes supporting AOL and the Web sites) includes about a dozen people, and for the Web sites the company works with Electric Press, which hosts the sites.

Ewing points out that while repurposed content makes up much of the site, the company is beginning to see the value in breaking news stories online. An Army Times reporter's story about the Army suppressing survey results about sexual affairs among soldiers, for example, was published first on the Web site on a Thursday, when the paper wouldn't be available till the following Monday.

Contacts: Lee Ewing,
Rick Peck,

Domain-name crisis solution?

Marc Perton, senior producer for iVillage, wrote in about Netword, the Web keyword scheme that was the subject of a Stop The Presses! column last week:

"Frankly, I see Netword's greatest potential as a private-sector solution to the current domain-name crisis. Imagine, for example, if both Microsoft and Netscape incorporated Netword code into their browsers (or if Microsoft just bought Netword and made it a 'standard'). You would then have an instant alternative to the current domain-naming system. Why bother registering '' with InterNIC when Netword-enabled users could just type 'Outing' or 'Steve Outing' or whatever other word combination you chose, and instantly be directed to your site? Of course, for Netword to work on that level, it really would require something like an acquisition by Microsoft, which would (hopefully) be killed by the FTC.

"And Netword needs to lower its prices if it wants to compete effectively with InterNIC. But the fact that it exists at all is, I think, an encouraging step on the road away from the InterNIC monopoly."


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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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