Projo paywall will prove pivotal to the paper’s long-term healthDecember 29th, 2011 at 6:00 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site
With revenue and circulation still falling precipitously, the Projo is poised to bet big on pushing readers back to print by forcing those who want all its content to either subscribe to the print edition or read it in an electronic format that’s an exact digital replica of the dead tree version.
The strategy is risky, to say the least. The new ProvidenceJournal.com’s debut was met with withering criticism, including from the paper’s own commenters. The e-edition software developed by Olive Interactive remains buggy (the share tools stopped working on Firefox 8 for Mac earlier this month) and its article pages don’t even say that you’re reading a Providence Journal story. There are still no Projo iPhone or Android apps. It’s all a marked contrast with the award-winning new BostonGlobe.com, also launched this fall and also charging readers.
Journal management is notoriously tight-lipped, so it’s hard to judge if the new website is meeting their expectations. Compete.com says the paper’s unique visitors on the Web plunged from 425,486 in September (on Projo.com) to 233,091 in November (on ProvidenceJournal.com). But take that with a grain of salt, since Compete’s numbers are notoriously unreliable.
It’s fair to say media analysts are skeptical of The Journal’s strategy. In an email, “Newsonomics” author Ken Doctor questioned whether it will allow the paper to survive and thrive in the digital era:
I’m dubious about hard pay barriers that limit public sampling. It makes sense for Projo and other dailies to restrict access, spurring print subscribers to keep print and get digital access. That’s a route to reducing print subscriber loss and preparing for readers to move completely from print to the tablet.
At the same time, though, news companies need to find the next generation of readership, to pour more potential customers into the top end of the funnel, if they are going to get people under 50 to pay for the products, digital or print. Sampling – as in The New York Times’ model of 20 article views a month, or Facebook apps (as The Wall Street Journal is doing) – is a way to connect with new audiences, to widen the top of the funnel.
The big problem with hard paywalls: they freeze the business potential, maybe holding on to older readers longer, but foreclosing growth.
Dan Kennedy of Northeastern University made a similar point in October. “The [New York] Times is proving that people will pay for a well-thought-out, reasonably priced online edition,” Kennedy wrote. “The Globe is about to learn whether readers in Greater Boston will do the same. The Journal, by contrast, is looking backwards. It might even work – but for no more than a few years.”
As Kennedy noted, the NYT is an instructive and potentially worrying example for the Projo. The Times Co. is selling all its regional papers in the Sun Belt, and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici says a key reason is because midsize papers can’t charge readers online the way the flagship Times can. “It’s harder for regional papers,” the company’s outgoing CEO said, which apparently made selling them off a better bet.
The Journal continues to boast by far the largest newsroom and loudest mouthpiece in Rhode Island. But the paper now faces more competition than it has at any time since it bought out a rival daily, the Providence News-Tribune, way back in 1938 – not only from WPRI.com and our broadcast brethren, but also from newer outlets like Rhode Island Public Radio, GoLocalProv, the Patch sites and The Valley Breeze.
All that said, it’s still unclear what the final version of The Journal’s new online offering is going to be. The paper has yet to announce when it will begin charging for the e-edition, let alone how much it will cost. Considering ProvidenceJournal.com looks nothing like the websites of its sister papers – and A.H. Belo executives say the Projo will emulate the Dallas Morning News starting next year – it’s possible the current site isn’t a permanent solution.
More Providence Journal and A.H. Belo coverage:
- Projo’s own ‘pension puzzle’: paper froze its underfunded plan (Dec. 12)
- Projo to cut newsroom staff amid ongoing ad, circulation slump (Dec. 2)
- Full Projo paywall set for 2012 as advertising sales slump 11% (Nov. 3)
- A.H. Belo’s surprising success amid the newspaper storm (May 18)
- Projo falls below $100M mark as half of ads evaporate (March 14)
- No reason for Belo to sell Projo with price at $51 million (Dec. 28, 2010)