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Up against the pay wall: Bracing for changes in online content

Last week, the Boston Globe revealed that it may apply a consumer pay model to its online content on Boston.com. Since the story broke, strong reactions have come from every corner. Building a pay wall may help save the ailing paper, which lost $50 million in 2008, but the move is risky in a time when print circulation is declining and online subscriptions are slow to take off. In the meantime, PR professionals are taking a hard look at a change that may substantially affect their strategies, especially if other newspapers follow.

Boston Globe may apply pay model to Boston.com

Boston Globe may apply pay model to Boston.com

The Globe’s announcement came just days after Rupert Murdoch declared in an earnings meeting that he intends to charge for online content produced by his News Corporation publications. While The Wall Street Journal already holds back some content for its online subscribers, a widely known loophole allows the general public to read every online Journal story for free. It’s unclear what kind of pay wall would benefit the Boston Globe most, but it’s a decision that could break the paper already in danger of being sold by the New York Times Company to one of several bidders.

Building a pay wall is not an automatic death sentence for a newspaper. It may not be a moneymaker, but it can strengthen the product. Conan Gallaty joined the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this year as online director and speaks highly of its consumer pay model. A statewide paper, the Democrat-Gazette has offered online subscriptions for the past seven years. The paper “saw an erosion of print circulation from people in core distribution zones around Little Rock,” Gallaty said. Readers were canceling their subscriptions because they could see everything for free online. “The promise of online media was that even if people moved [from print to online], we would be able to make up the loss of print revenue with just online revenue. That wasn’t happening, and still isn’t happening.” In Jan. 2002, local news, content originally created by the newspaper and not appearing in other publications, was put under lock and key, now accessed for $5.95 a month or $59 a year. National news, weather, and entertainment news are free. The Democrat-Gazette has about 3,400 online subscribers, according to Gallaty.

Initially, reader reaction was skeptical at best. “The biggest sentiment was that information is supposed to be free online and people had a right and were being deprived of that right,” Gallaty explained. “After a couple of months, we started explaining to [readers] the incredible investment that we make in our newsroom, and how much it costs to gather the news. We’d have to start cutting in our newsroom, which would mean a weaker product. That really hit home with the audience.” Charging for online content accounts for .1 percent of the Democrat-Gazette’s revenue, but print subscriptions are holding steady.

The Globe’s consumer pay model could appear in a number of ways. The Associated Press reported that the paper might require subscriptions to access certain sections of the Globe, or that it may employ a system of limited page views for unregistered users. According to the AP, the newspaper is conducting market research to determine the best method. Bob Powers, the Globe’s vice president of communications and public affairs, has not responded to questions posed by inVocus.

Something new for newspapers also means something new for PR. Jennifer Windrum, PR Manager at Swanson Russell Associates in Nebraska, said in an e-mail interview she would not depend on increasing a client’s visibility by pitching a story to a paper who might put it behind a pay wall. She researches alternative resources like blogs, and suggests that clients create their own content when applicable. Windrum said the decision to pitch a newspaper with an online consumer pay model may depend on whether “those who do subscribe are the target of our messaging.” Once a news reporter herself for CBS affiliate KMTV in Omaha, Neb., Windrum knows the media industry is changing, and in turn, so is her own. “Every move and every decision made on a client’s behalf has to be much more strategic.”

Robert Deigh, principal of RDC Communications/PR in Virginia and author of How Come No One Knows About Us?, shared concerns by e-mail about low paid readership online. “If a big name news organization has a very small online readership, getting my story onto their Web site is not going to do me or my client much short-term good,” Deigh said. Over the long term, however, Deigh said a story may spread over the Internet and “give my client a boost when people are doing a search on a particular topic.” Deigh recommends pitching those newspapers with online pay walls, but only as a part of a larger campaign. “Good PR requires the use of multiple communication tools.”

No matter what the Globe chooses, Gallaty said the move to charge for online content is a defensive one. “There is often a paradigm that is faulty, that you’re doing this in order to make money online. The charges should add up to help pay for the newsroom, but it doesn’t.” The offensive move, Gallaty said, is to explore the other features that the Web allows. As he described the content on ArkansasOnline.com, he pointed out, “Video, blogs, contests, comments, forums, live chat: these things are all open to the public and available at no charge, and also have advertising around it.” He added, “The challenge is original content, things you can’t do in a newspaper. It’s got to be something new.”

–Lisa Rowan

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