Columbus Dispatch pairs iPad edition with print subscription

While the publishing industry waits for details of Apple’s rumored newspaper subscription plan, some publications, including The Wall Street Journal, People magazine and the Financial Times, have been moving forward on their own.

The Columbus Dispatch launched its first iPad app last month, and it too circumvents Apple’s iTunes store by integrating directly with the paper’s existing subscriber database. The app is free to print subscribers as well as to those who receive the paper’s eEdition desktop replica.

Current nonsubscribers can access the iPad app for $99 a year, $10.99 a month or $2.54 a week. The paper also plans to offer single-day access to the app edition, at the print cover price, in the near future.

I talked with the paper’s vice president of digital, Phil Pikelny, about that approach and the paper’s overall mobile strategy. In this edited e-mail interview, Pikelny describes what amounts to a “read-anywhere” strategy, in which he foresees a “newspaper” subscription providing the reader with access to content on multiple print and digital platforms.

Damon Kiesow: Can you describe the features of your new iPad app?

Phil Pikelny: Our iPad app was specifically designed to be a “replica-plus” of The Columbus Dispatch. Users can download any edition of the newspaper as early as 4:30 a.m. The newspaper displays as a 100 percent color replica of the print edition. The pages can be enlarged and minimized by pinching and double-clicking the screen.

The app has a mode allowing the newspaper to be read story by story so that the pictures and type of each are presented in a larger, easier-to-read size and format. Users can move back and forth between the story and page modes to be able to see where on the page the various stories were placed by our editors.

The iPad app is free, but subscription-based. Can you explain how that works for readers?

Pikelny: The integration of our print/electronic subscriber database operates through our DSI software/subscriber database.

For our subscribers, they simply enter their subscriber login and password into our free iPad app and DSI authorizes their ability to download our daily newspaper. If a person is a seven-day print subscriber, they are authorized to download all seven days to their iPad at no additional charge.

If a person is a Sunday-only subscriber, they are authorized to download only the Sunday edition of the newspaper at no extra charge to their iPad. If a person is not a print subscriber, they can purchase an iPad-only subscription to The Columbus Dispatch.

People who are not print subscribers can also purchase a single day’s edition of our newspaper for their iPad.

The iPad publication is a daily download. How do you handle breaking news between editions?

Pikelny: Currently, our news updates, and breaking news, are found on our dispatch.com website. In a project we’ll be doing with News Corporation, the content you download at any time during the day will have the latest, or breaking, news available at the time you access our digital content on their platform.

[The Columbus Dispatch is privately owned but is in talks with News Corp. regarding paid content initiatives that company is pursuing. Pikelny was unable to discuss those details due to a non-disclosure agreement.]

We continue to work toward a process where downloads of the replica will be accompanied by the latest news updates or breaking news. “Push technology” will also be a part of future releases so that news is updated throughout the day even when a subscriber receives a “download” product earlier in the day.

On platforms that rely on our RSS feeds or other constantly updating technologies, the content will be the latest possible.

Some early media adopters on the iPad, such as Wired, have been pushing to make their tablet editions highly interactive and heavy on multimedia. How did you think about such an approach?

Pikelny: Magazines have the luxury of weekly or monthly cycles that allow for programming that depth of interactivity into their editions. Since newspapers publish every day, our ability to work on that kind of interactivity (or layout) is limited by time. Since our company also owns a TV station, radio station, community newspapers and many other niche publications, we will have the ability to eventually link to other multimedia content.

One of our competitive advantages is the “newspaper reading experience,” which is very different, and has advantages over, interactivity. We are first building in the newspaper reading experience to our digital platforms. We intend to build in more and more multimedia and more and more interactivity as we proceed.

If the app runs on a subscriber model, what is the paid content strategy for your website?

Pikelny: At the moment, dispatch.com is totally free. We will be executing a paid-content strategy in the future.

We are looking at a variety of models:

  1. At some level of website usage (TBD; likely to be a time-spent or a number of stories read measure), we will ask for payment or immediately block usage.
  2. A “Dispatch Extra” model where specific content is available as paid content only.
  3. Some sort of a curation model where people pay for the convenience of our providing them specific content they request/identify/would be likely to want to see. In any of these models, print subscribers would get the paid content as part of their print subscription. People who are non-print subscribers will be able to purchase that content directly online.

We have been talking with News Corporation to enlist our products in a paid content model they will be debuting later this year. In that case, our news content would be part of a paid subscription on PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android phones/tablets, BlackBerry phones/tablets, etc.

Our mobile website will likely continue to mirror our dispatch.com website; however we’ll obviously configure the content to be easily readable on the smaller screen.

Do you have any plans to connect your iPhone app to your print subscriber list as well?

Pikelny: Our iPhone app is currently free. It does not contain all of the content in our newspaper or on our website. In that configuration it will remain free. We are looking at creating a newspaper replica edition for the iPhone. If that happens, we’ll connect that to our print subscriber list. We are currently looking at a number of options for a different kind of iPhone relationship with our subscribers, including the News Corporation model mentioned above.

How do your print, Web and iPhone/tablet strategies work together?

Pikelny: We will always have some free content on all platforms. However, our goal is to charge [once] for the full content of the newspaper … to subscribers who can then access our content on any platform/device available to them.

A day’s content will also be available for purchase on all platforms/devices if a person is not already one of our subscribers.

The bottom line is we are focused on building our base of subscribers to our content, and intend not to get distracted as to what format subscribers elect to use in order to access that content. If a subscriber chooses electronic delivery over our print product on certain days (e.g. Sunday), we have an opt-in product to be able to deliver advertiser pre-prints to that subscriber on such days.

We are committed long-term to the future of our print newspaper, but we are just as committed to serving the needs of our customers/subscribers. One subscription payment will give our subscribers access to our content on a variety of platforms/devices. The subscribers will tell us how and where they want to access our content.

Any other thoughts?

Pikelny: The newspaper reading experience is unlike searching for news on the Web or accessing a website or a mobile site.

For many people, that experience (complete with its unparalleled depth of content, the serendipity of finding news of interest that a person might not have been aware of, the watchdog role newspapers have played for centuries, spectacular photography, insight, editorial perspective, unmatched credibility, etc.) is the primary reason many subscribers come to us in the first place.

The Columbus Dispatch has been named Newspaper Of The Year in Ohio two years in a row. The kind of editing/storytelling/story curation/photojournalism/investigative journalism we do is our strength and at the core of our business. We are committed to delivering, and constantly improving, the newspaper reading experience on any and all digital platforms.

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