February 11, 2010

There are two provocative elements to MediaNews’ paid content plan, which will be tested at two sites, the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania and the Enterprise-Record in Chico, Calif., in April or May:

  • The chain is developing new types of content that will deliver a better experience for all users, including those who never pay anything, said Howard Saltz, vice president for content development.
Without going into detail, he said that content involves “using dynamic tools to scour the Web for content that’s appropriate for its market.” This approach will employ geo-targeted, personalized, user-generated and aggregated content, and will include classifieds and local directories.
  • Because the company is creating this new type of content, Saltz said, “I am right now guaranteeing everyone that we will put content behind the wall and we’re going to grow traffic.”

Saltz said the MediaNews pay wall — internally, it’s called a “premium content model” — is styled after the Financial Times, which requires registration or payment to view more than a certain number of articles a month. That comparison makes sense, considering MediaNews is using Journalism Online’s Press+ paid content system, and Steven Brill used the Financial Times as an example when he told me how Press+ would work.

MediaNews executives are still working on details and pricing, but here’s how their plan will work.
What’s not free

“The kind of content that goes behind a wall is the kind of content that paid, professional journalists do,” Saltz said, such as investigations, enterprise, analysis, columns and reviews. That’s what newspapers do well, he said, and “the kinds of things that you really couldn’t count on bloggers and Web enthusiasts to do.”
What is free

The sites will place content outside the pay wall if it’s necessary to remain competitive with other news outlets, Saltz said. Breaking news and multimedia fall into that category. And all of the new types of content that Saltz referred to (more on that below) will be free.

MediaNews has established some guidelines on what will be free and what will be premium content, but many decisions will fall to editors and producers. “If someone robbed a bank, that’s in front of the wall,” Saltz said. “The story of how bank robberies increase when the economy goes bad, behind the wall.”

Who gets what

Subscribers will be able to access everything online. “We’re not going to cut that person off; we have a relationship with that person,” Saltz said. (In this group he counts subscribers to the print and e-editions, not Kindle and similar e-readers, though that could change.)

People who don’t subscribe can pay for online access to everything on the site, said David Bessen, vice president and chief information officer for MediaNews. The tentative (he emphasized “tentative”) price is $3.99 per month.

Someone who doesn’t want to pay, but is willing to register and provide some personal and contact information, will be able to access 25 premium-content articles per month. Such a person, Saltz noted, “is making a payment of sorts — not money, but registration info is currency.”

What information does MediaNews want? Right now, Bessen said, it’s “registration lite”: e-mail address, ZIP code, gender and age range. The e-mail is key, so MediaNews can send newsletters with advertisements.

If someone doesn’t want to pay or register, he will be able to access 10 articles per month, Bessen said.

By keeping the pay wall permeable for such casual users, the company hopes to maintain traffic that comes from search engines and other referring sites. Such referrals make up half of all traffic on some of the company’s sites. “Nor do we want to automatically create ill will” by walling off all content, Bessen said.

Users may be warned at some point before they reach that threshold (which is what the Financial Times does). And the sites may differentiate premium content by placing an icon next to those headlines.

How new types of content will increase traffic and revenue

“We’ll add content types — geo-specific presentation, aggregation, some personalization — that make terrific sense for the online reader, and that print could not do by its nature,” Saltz told me.

For competitive reasons, he wouldn’t give me any specific examples, just broad descriptions. From our conversation, it appears that this approach will include — and may even rely on — non-narrative and programmatic uses of information, the sort of information-based Web services that don’t normally appear on news sites. Some of that content will direct people to other sites, he said.

“If we could go back in time 15 years, knowing what we know now — invent Web sites 15 years ago — this is what we would’ve done,” Saltz said. “Even though the online consumer isn’t going to get a lot of things for free anymore, I think overall it’s a better experience.”

This content has been programmed by MediaNews developers and vendors to be dynamic — automatically updated — and not require additional work by people in the newsroom. Small papers especially can’t spare any resources, Saltz said. “If we were to hinge our Web strategy on doing things that require labor,” he said, “then we’d be setting ourselves up for failure.”
How they will judge success

“The strategy underlying all this is to protect our print product,” Bessen said. “Success is a leveling-off of decline in circulation numbers and/or less of a need to have heavy sales efforts to maintain the numbers.”

I responded that some people may conclude that MediaNews doesn’t “get it” if the company’s online strategy is set up to protect the print product. He said he understands that perspective, but the company also needs to explain to the public that news costs money.

“We need to market why we’re doing this. We’re countering the sentiment that, hey, I can get my news for free online, so why should I pay? … The public in general doesn’t understand where that free news comes from.”

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Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens,…
Steve Myers

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