At Dallas Morning News, digital is a complement to print, not a substitute

There's definitely something different about The Dallas Morning News' new premium website: Unlike the Boston Globe's two-website strategy, for instance, people who subscribe aren't getting exclusive articles, but they are getting more photos and fewer ads.

Is that worth $2.99 per week? As Nieman Lab director (and former Dallas Morning News reporter) Joshua Benton tweeted, that doesn't seem like a great deal:

Not surprisingly, that's not how The Dallas Morning News looks at this new product, which is meant to replace its paywall as a source of revenue from digital readers. Reached by phone, News chief marketing officer Jason Dyer said the company's research showed that "our print reader doesn’t see digital as a substitute for print. We do have data that indicates they see it as a complement."

So let us now add something new to the gallery of newspaper pay models, to stand alongside "hard" paywalls, metered systems, and all-access passes. Maybe we should call it the eggroll model: Order print, get premium digital on the side for free. You can get the DMN's premium digital experience for $2.99 per week, or the Sunday paper plus the premium site for ... $2.99 per week. Want the Wednesday paper (with its coupons) too? You get all that for $3.99 per week, plus the premium site.

At the News, digital is something you throw in to attract or keep print subscribers rather than a standalone product you expect non-subscribers to pay for. "We’re obviously looking for digital subscription growth," Dyer said, stressing that this premium system is an experiment.

"I have a feeling that ... the paywall thing hasn't gone all that well in certain metro areas," Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds said by phone.

Edmonds said he thought having two websites with the same content "can be confusing to customers" and could leave the paper stuck repeatedly offering free or discount offers to encourage readers to hop over to the premium side.

The News, he said, will have to keep reminding people "what is this stuff, and what is so wonderful about it."

Dyer told News reporter Sheryl Jean that the old paywall “didn’t create a massive groundswell of [digital] subscribers." The News declined to break out its digital numbers to Jean, but in March it reported average Sunday print circulation of 293,383 and average Sunday digital replica circulation of 66,164 to the Alliance of Audited Media. Its average weekday circulation was 190,613 print, with 65,912 digital.

"I wouldn't say that paywalls or meters can't work," Dyer told Poynter. "We just saw an opportunity to experiment from a different approach."

In its press release announcing the change, the News said it polled seven-day print subscribers "and found that when offered digital access for a price that was 90 percent less than the average print subscription rate, only five percent said they would be willing to give up their seven day print edition for digital access."

Publisher Jim Moroney said in the release that the paper concluded "that subscribers were not paying for the content, so much as paying for how they wanted to consume the content we published. They were paying for a print experience."

That research had a lot of influence on the News' decision, Dyer told Poynter. And the premium site will add value for print subscribers with a more-personalized experience, he said.

"We have some technologies that are being deployed that do enable that," he said, but declined to name them. Premium members will also have access to perks such as events and deals.

"There are places where advertising is part of the experience" that the News is offering, Dyer said.

I noted that the personalization he was describing me sounded like it might yield some data that would be of interest to advertisers (Google is also working on personalizing news), to which Dyer responded that "we don’t have an advertiser announcement regarding the premium site right now."

He added that the amount of advertising on the site could change.

As could the way the News approaches all of this. Prior to the premium site, the paper had a hard paywall that simply blocked casual browsers ("almost always a mistake," Ryan Chittum writes in CJR). Moroney told Nieman Lab's Justin Ellis that the paper isn't "ruling out using a metered-access model down the road," with Benton writing that a "sort of soft meter will be used to periodically prompt frequent readers about a possible premium upgrade."

That commitment to tinkering is the only constant to the News' online strategy, Dyer said: "I will tell you this thing will continue to improve. This is not a launch-it-and-leave-it situation."

Correction: This post originally attributed Justin Ellis' story to Joshua Benton.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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