<i>Post-Gazette</i> President Expects Premium Site PG+ to Evolve

At midnight, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette became the nation's first metro paper to move from thinking about paid online content to venturing into the marketplace with a product that bundles extra editorial offerings and assorted "membership benefits."
Post-Gazette President Chris Chamberlain told me in a phone interview that the new service, called PG+, was developed and will be run "totally on our own," despite some overlap in concept with the Journalism Online package that entrepreneurs Steve Brill and Gordon Crovitz are trying to sell to publishers.
"It's a way to extend our brand and evolve our business," Chamberlain said. "We talked to a lot of customers ... and tailored it to our market." He added that being first in the industry with a paid content structure is happenstance, not an objective.
Membership in PG+ will cost $36 per year or $3.99 a month, "less than a latte," the promotional materials note.
If you take the "introductory tour," as I did, you'll find that the Post-Gazette has packed the site with new features but taken pains to claim that nothing has been cut from the print edition or the existing post-gazette.com.
Chamberlain acknowledged that it's "a fair question" how star columnists and various topic specialists can take on new blogs, engage in reader chats and offer more "accessibility" to PG+ members without borrowing time from what they are doing already. The answer, he said, is that he and editor David Shribman modestly increased staff (he wouldn't say how much) to spread the workload.
PG+ is sports-heavy, with Steelers and college and high school sports features, as well as a Super Bowl commemorative book offered free to initial subscribers "while supplies last." More offbeat offerings include listening to recommendations from the paper's classical music critic and a chance to see a rough draft of an upcoming editorial cartoon (and offer suggestions).
As a strategic matter, sports and all these other specialties are not offered a la carte. It all comes in one package.
The promise of special access is a little fuzzy. The promo says that subscribers can "create their own profiles and interact personally with Post-Gazette journalists" as well as each other. They also will receive exclusive invitation to talks by editorial staffers. 
The Post-Gazette has framed the service as a "membership" with some privileges (discounts at certain businesses) beyond accessing and commenting on content. The membership concept has worked spectacularly through the years for magazines like Smithsonian and National Geographic. Results have been mixed for newspaper buyers clubs, which typically offer discounts with advertisers for a small additional fee.
In the present climate, Chamberlain said, "deals and offers are an important part of it, with people holding onto their wallets."
Some of the talk about paid content suggests that newspapers make a clean break with free online content, meaning they should stop giving away their expensive-to-produce journalism. However, many in the industry -- including Brill and Crovitz -- think a bonus package like the Post-Gazette's is a logical starting place.
The strategy avoids, or at least minimizes, the obvious business risk of going paid -- depressing traffic and curbing online advertising revenues.

That consideration led The New York Times two years ago to abandon its Times Select package, which required everyone except print subscribers to pay $49.95 a year to read star columnists and other special features. The service had 227,000 subscribers and was generating more than $10 million a year in revenue, but the company said it would quickly make that much and more in additional advertising by opening the door to that content.
Chamberlain, who said he had been up all night to make the well-trafficked launch as smooth as possible, said he was unwilling to discuss "quantitative goals" or a timetable for gauging success. PG+ "is going to evolve. I'm pretty certain it will be here a year from now -- we are getting great first-day feedback. But will it look the same? Probably not."  
That makes sense. The company will be able to assess how many readers and visitors want an extra helping of what the Post-Gazette offers, and which of the PG+ features are keepers. Since the site will not take advertising (at least initially), the math is pretty straightforward: 25,000 subscribers at an average of $36 a year would equal $900,000 in revenue.
I'm not certain PG+ will be a success. But two cheers for the Post-Gazette and its parent, Block Communications, for responding to the challenge, as Elvis once put it, for "a little less conversation and a little more action."


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