Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Salt Lake Tribune May Start Charging For Website Access, Could Embrace The Same Business Model As The Ogden Standard-Examiner

The recent announcement by NewsCorp mogul Rupert Murdoch that he expects to start charging for access to NewsCorp's newspaper websites within a year appears to be the tip of the iceberg. Encouraged by booming online subscription revenues at the Wall Street Journal, Murdoch believes this will be a successful business model to arrest the decline in the newspaper business. He envisions fees to access the websites of his British and American newspapers, and says that the current days of free internet access will soon be over.

Now, according to Salt Lake Crawlmeister Glen Warchol, Salt Lake Tribune publisher Dean Singleton wants to duplicate Murdoch's intentions. Although Warchol is a bit confused by Singleton's corporate gobbledy-gook, the impression I get is that Singleton wants to create a specialized multi-portal business model similar in concept to the model employed by the Ogden Standard-Examiner, which has two separate portals. The Standard-Examiner has a digital portal, requiring a paid subscription by those who don't subscribe to the print edition (but free to print subscribers), and the standard portal, which is free to all viewers. The Standard-Examiner diverts certain stories exclusively to the digital portal to provide an additional incentive for paid subscriptions.

Note that the Salt Lake Crawler has now got a makeover - and requires you to register on the Tribune site in order to post comments. Warchol himself has not gotten a makeover, though.

Singleton lays out his somewhat ambiguously-worded vision on Poynter Online. Singleton was participating in a media summit designed to address the problem of declining profitability. Acknowledging that newspapers cannot continue to give away all content for free, conference participants built a consensus on a three pronged approach to enhance the business moving forward. Here's the meat of the proposal:

*We will begin to move away from putting all of our newspaper content online for free. Instead, we will explore a variety of premium offerings that apply real value to our print content. We are not trying to invent new premium products, but instead tell our existing print readers that what they are buying has real value, and to our online audience (who don’t buy the print edition), that if you want access to all online content, you are going to have to register, and/or pay. If a non-subscriber wants the newspaper content in its entirety online, they will be directed to some sort of registration or pay vehicle (and if they are a print subscriber, they will have full access at no charge). To be clear, the brand value proposition to the consumer is that the newspaper is a product, whether in print or online, which must be paid for.

* We will begin differentiating our sites from the newspaper and focus on strategies designed to reach younger audiences and extend our reach. The websites, newspaper.com as we call them now, will become a different product. This new site, which we have been calling news.com, will be a regional news site that is actively managed to present breaking news. It will continue to draw a content from the newspaper (but probably in a more abbreviated form), but will also have user-generated content, community involvement and third party content. News.com will continue to serve our existing audience, which spends a lot of time on our sites, and drive significant traffic. They like and depend on our sites for their national and local news. We must not alienate them as we strive to expand our audience and attract younger people and non newspaper subscribers. Obviously, our sites must draw upon the content of the newspaper, but the presentation of that content will be different. News.com will be an entry page to new content offerings, local retail advertising opportunities and premium offerings. [Ed. Note: Newspaper.com and news.com are simply generic names in this case.]

* We will build a new local utility site (Local.com), which is an ecosystem of local information, resources, user content, shopping guides, and marketplaces...


Obviously, Singleton doesn't want to dry up the free content completely, but he does want to multi-tier the content, determine what he can charge for, and then implement the strategy. It would seem like Singleton would be looking hard at the Standard-Examiner's current business model, since it's obviously working for them, but it could lead to a Tribune website where brief four and five-line summaries of news stories would be available for free, but viewing the full story would require a paid subscription. It should be noted that the Tribune already charges to access their archives, and the incentive is created by dumping all of its stories into the paid archives after 30 days.

But although Singleton's proposals, as presented above, may work for newspapers like the Denver Post or the Anchorage Daily News, which operate in one-newspaper towns, how will it work in Salt Lake, where the Tribune co-exists with the Deseret News? And the Deseret News does not necessarily have an incentive to charge for its content; it's owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is able and willing to continuing pouring funds into the paper to keep the website free, primarily because of the "missionary value" of the DN as well as MormonTimes.com. What would stop news consumers from simply migrating to the Deseret News en masse under those conditions?

Because the Deseret News, on paper, could compete without limits, Singleton's options are limited here. If he changes the Tribune website to an all-subscription site, the Tribune will die within two years. If he changes it to a "only-the-summaries-for-free" website, he will slow the Tribune's decline, but not reverse it. His best bet might be to embrace the Standard-Examiner's business model, but offer enough extra perks to paid subscribers as a greater incentive. The demise of the Tribune would not serve the interests of the people of Utah; it is a good newspaper even considering its left-of-center political orientation.

Too many good newspapers have died as a result of the changing economic dynamic. As bloggers, we recognize that the newspapers must find more profitable business models, and that a premium must be assigned to some online content. But newspapers must remember that online consumers are accustomed to free access, and that they can only be weaned away from it over a period of time. It cannot be done overnight.

3 comments:

RudiZink said...

Interesting development at the Trib, which is happening just as the Standard-Examiner is modifying its own web content model.

Over the past month or so the Standard has taken to posting most of its news stories on its free web site, and is hiding only a few feature columns, Like Charlie Trentelman, Mark Saul and a few others behind its paid firewall.

I've spoken to SE managing editor Andy Howell about this, and he informs me the Standard's web traffic is now up over 30%, and that SE management is very happy about that.

Seems the Trib and the Standard may be moving in opposite directions yet again.

Anchorage Activist said...

Thanks for your input, Rudi. I am aware that the SE has always held back the choicer stuff for their Digital site, but I was not aware they were actually decreasing the amount. And I'm quite glad that their decision is benefitting them financially.

The quality of their reporting doesn't exactly hurt, either. They have some rather controversial bloggers on their staff who provide thought-provoking content. Charlie Trentelman is one of them.

I still say if the Tribune restricts their content, and DN doesn't follow suit, that the Tribune will find it difficult to survive.

Anonymous said...

The Tribune can barely keep their website running as it is, if they want to charge people for it they should fire the monkeys doing their IT maintenance and hire people that know what they're doing.