Strib tries a new strategy: favoring paying customers

posted at 2:12 pm on March 30, 2009 by Ed Morrissey

Give the Minneapolis Star-Tribune credit for creative thinking.  It wants to make its dead-tree edition relevant, but how does a newspaper do that in the age of Internet access?  The Strib returns to a free-market solution that makes sense, even if it may not work:

For several years now, the Star Tribune has been pushing all of its breaking news and exclusive content online, as has nearly every newspaper in America. The argument, until now, has been that if we don’t give our content away on the Web, somebody else will, and we will lose ground in this new business model just as surely as newspapers have lost ground in the online classified advertising business. So we have aggressively broken news, have blogged and opined on sports, and have posted our deeply reported stories often before printing them in the paper. We also have created exclusive content for the Web, including breaking-news videos, programmed shows and online chats.

That approach has been enormously successful in driving audience to our site. Our reach in the market, when you combine the daily paper, the mobile site and our online site, is significantly greater than it was a decade ago. But over time, I’ve begun to question the notion that we should give all of our content away for free, though plenty of my colleagues have tried to convince me that I’m wrong.

I’m not sure anyone knows what the right answer is for our business right now. What I do know is that good journalism, the kind an enlightened community like the Twin Cities demands and appreciates, cannot be produced for free. I also believe that we, as an industry, have to drive more value into our printed papers so long as we continue to deliver news that way. So starting last week, we began experimenting with giving some of the best of our journalism to you, our paying print customers, first.

In essence, they’re going back to a tiered delivery model.  They will produce constant content for free-access delivery on the Internet, including breaking news, which they need to deliver on line for competitive reasons.  Their more in-depth reporting and local coverage will appear first in the print edition, especially in the Sunday paper, as a way to entice readers to subscribe.

Will that work?  It’s certainly worth a try, and it makes some sense for both the Strib and its readers.  It puts more resources into the kind of exclusive content Nancy Barnes wants to keep for premium customers.  Those greater resources will soon disappear unless the Strib and other newspapers find a way to monetize that content, and subscription service provides the most direct monetization possible.  Those customers who want content that differentiates the Strib from wire services and other competitors may want it bad enough to pay for it, especially for local news coverage, where the resources of a local newspaper come most into play.

Jack Shafer, meanwhile, rejects Barnes’ argument that the newspaper has to deliver content in a dead-tree drop, and also the notion that democracy depends on it:

When the conversation turns to democracy, I turn to Adrian Monck, who rejects the idea that newspapers play an irreplaceable role in the institution’s well-being. Indeed, American democracy survived its first century without much in the way of the investigative and accountability journalism we associate with newspapers. That kind of journalism didn’t start to spread until the end of the 19th century. When Thomas Jefferson said he preferred newspapers without government to government without newspapers, he wasn’t referring to anything we’d recognize as our local paper, says Stephen Bates, professor of journalism at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Slate contributor. The pre-modern press was captive of political parties, and their pages were filled with partisan fodder. What Jefferson was applauding was the newspapers’ capacity as a forum for debate (and sometimes slander), not exposé.

I so love daily newspapers that I subscribe to four of them out of my own pocket, so please don’t lump me in with the haters. But like Monck, I can imagine citizens acquiring sufficient information to vote or poke their legislators with pitchforks even if all the newspapers in the country fell into a bottomless recycling bin tomorrow. …

The insistence on coupling newspapering to democracy irritates me not just because it overstates the quality and urgency of most of the work done by newspapers but because it inflates the capacity of newspapers to make us better citizens, wiser voters, and more enlightened taxpayers. I love news on newsprint, believe me, I do. But I hate seeing newspapers reduced to a compulsory cheat sheet for democracy. All this lovey-dovey about how essential newspapers are to civic life and the political process makes me nostalgic for the days, not all that long ago, when everybody hated them.

There are two arguments at play here: whether we need journalism, and whether it has to have a paper-delivery mechanism to survive.  I’d say we do need journalism, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it takes a five-pound lump of paper to get it to the people.  In order for journalism to survive, though, it has to find a way to pay for itself, and that will take some creative thinking by newspaper organizations looking to both survive and serve their communities.

Will Barnes’ premium delivery of content help boost subscriptions and save the Strib?  Not unless they start creating compelling content for the premium delivery, and that’s really been the Strib’s problem locally.  If they can solve that problem, then this could be a model for other newspapers to pursue.


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It’s so silly and basic. Just charge for access to your locally created content, keep AP stuff for free on your site, plus free weather and classifieds. charge for job listings.

This isn’t brain surgery. Just don’t give your content away for free, but let subscribers read EVERYTHING online.

EOS.

Vincenzo on March 30, 2009 at 2:17 PM

An interesting start, but not the right direction.

They should be interesting a premium tier to their website that adds to the experience. Even though much of the paper is leftist dribble, I may be enticed to pay $4.99 a month for some extra functionality and no ads. I don’t want a paper delivered to my home. The last thing I want is day old news dropped outside my house every morning.

strictnein on March 30, 2009 at 2:21 PM

In this new arena of 3G, wifi, wimax etc – the arbornet is dead.

Dump the expense of printing entirely, buy some inline marketing infrastructure to raise advertising revenue & click-thru, trim the subscription price down to its skeleton, and push content to customers over the net.

LimeyGeek on March 30, 2009 at 2:23 PM

Solution won’t work. They have to compete with this.

They ought to know, because don’t they share production facilities with the Pioneer?

unclesmrgol on March 30, 2009 at 2:25 PM

How about not printing cartoons which disparage the military, that would be a nice start to attract people like me.

The Star and Sickle quit darkening my doorstep back in 2001 for precisely that reason, and there is very little which would draw me back now.

Bishop on March 30, 2009 at 2:26 PM

a free model with paid advertisers is the answer, if you are not surviving, then you need to charge more for advertising and cut the fat, the fat at the Strib being the production side of the paper…

perhaps pay writers only for advertising on their own pages… whomever draws the bigger audience, gets the fatter check, whomever does not… does not…

much like other industries, there comes a time when your job is not needed any more, and it’s time to diversify your resume.

Kaptain Amerika on March 30, 2009 at 2:27 PM

Ahem.

Don’t the local TV stations have websites? Their content is free.

Pay internet is an epic fail.

Local news is no longer a big corporate business.

/I have some typewriters I’m trying to sell.

faraway on March 30, 2009 at 2:28 PM

They must come to understand, it is not the vehicle alone.

It is also the content.

artist on March 30, 2009 at 2:29 PM

The Celebrity Apprentice will soon have to ask for the resignation of the Star Tribune CEO.

faraway on March 30, 2009 at 2:31 PM

I can already see the young boy’s yelling headlines and waving papers ahh progress.

Gotta have a game plan.

heshtesh on March 30, 2009 at 2:34 PM

The assumption that buyers of the dead-tree editions are “paying for the content” is playing fast and loose with the numbers. Subscription costs and single-copy sales generate less revenue than the cost of the paper, ink, press, pressmen, delivery trucks, and delivery drivers. Not to mention the cost of staffing phones to handle mis-deliveries, more carriers to deliver papers that were missed, etc.

But, if subscriptions didn’t pay for all that, how were newspapers successful? ADvertising. That’s why many printed pubs don’t have to charge at all. Their ad revenue more than covers the printing, and they can deliver more eyeballs by being free.

The real key to making online newspapesr successful is finding a way to make online ad revenue cover the cost of newsgathering. A problem non-newspaper sites have as well, eh?

hawksruleva on March 30, 2009 at 2:35 PM

a free model with paid advertisers is the answer, if you are not surviving, then you need to charge more for advertising and cut the fat, the fat at the Strib being the production side of the paper…

perhaps pay writers only for advertising on their own pages… whomever draws the bigger audience, gets the fatter check, whomever does not… does not…

much like other industries, there comes a time when your job is not needed any more, and it’s time to diversify your resume.

Kaptain Amerika on March 30, 2009 at 2:27 PM

So you’re saying you’d rather see 10 Paris Hilton stories and no city council stories?

hawksruleva on March 30, 2009 at 2:36 PM

I recommend product placement within the first two paragraphs of the story. For example, this article taken from the Star Tribune:

The city of St. Paul is expected to announce this afternoon a plan to ask the courts to bar gang members from congregating during the Cinco de Mayo celebration on the city’s West Side.

The city will ask for a civil gang injunction, and for some 1800 Silver Tequila, essentially a lawsuit that limits actions or places requirements on a defendant. In this case, which we recommend Samsonite, it would ban known members of the Surenos 13 gang from associating with one another in a specific “safety zone,” an area bounded by Plato Boulevard, Ohio Street (near Insight Storage Solutions), Hwy. 52 and Sidney Street.

WashJeff on March 30, 2009 at 2:38 PM

When Thomas Jefferson said he preferred newspapers without government to government without newspapers, he wasn’t referring to anything we’d recognize as our local paper, says Stephen Bates, professor of journalism at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Slate contributor. The pre-modern press was captive of political parties, and their pages were filled with partisan fodder. What Jefferson was applauding was the newspapers’ capacity as a forum for debate (and sometimes slander), not exposé.

For the first 100 years, American newspapers built their credibility the conservative way: by saying “This is what I stand for; this is what I believe in; and this is what I’m trying to convince you of — take it or leave it.”

Over the past 100 years, American media have moved to the opposite approach. They report parochial news only as a means to an end: to create a well of credibility they can then expend to help push the patently asinine claim that they aren’t trying to convey any political message to their consumers.

Now they’re suprised to find that people consider them useful as nothing but easily replaced sources of trivia.

If the Star-Tribune converts its paper version to nothing but what they consider “in-depth reporting”, they’re going to lose even the last few geriatric late-adopters who hadn’t yet gotten around to cancelling their subscriptions.

logis on March 30, 2009 at 2:38 PM

Craigslist is killing the newspaper business as much as anything.

Hate to tell you people; but who would pay $500 for a help wanted ad in the paper, when it’s free on craigslist?

lorien1973 on March 30, 2009 at 2:39 PM

Craigslist is killing the newspaper business as much as anything.

Hate to tell you people; but who would pay $500 for a help wanted ad in the paper, when it’s free on craigslist?

lorien1973 on March 30, 2009 at 2:39 PM

In theory, because the newspaper reachers more qualified job candidates. But is that still the case? It’d certainly depend on the job.

hawksruleva on March 30, 2009 at 2:46 PM

I recommend product placement within the first two paragraphs of the story…

WashJeff on March 30, 2009 at 2:38 PM

Ahhh, the Paul Harvey Model.

Good Day.

juanito on March 30, 2009 at 2:48 PM

Hate to tell you people; but who would pay $500 for a help wanted ad in the paper, when it’s free on craigslist?

lorien1973 on March 30, 2009 at 2:39 PM

I don’t think it’s free to place help wanted ads on craigslist. At least I remember having to pay a fee a couple of years ago when I advertised for a German translator.

Kensington on March 30, 2009 at 2:50 PM

The Strib gets a lot wrong, but they should be applauded for being smart enough to keep publishing James Lileks.

Kensington on March 30, 2009 at 2:51 PM

Newspapers = buggy whip………….hmmmmm

MNDavenotPC on March 30, 2009 at 2:51 PM

OT : HotAir.com looks like crap in lynx

LimeyGeek on March 30, 2009 at 2:53 PM

The Strib gets a lot wrong, but they should be applauded for being smart enough to keep publishing James Lileks.

Kensington on March 30, 2009 at 2:51 PM

I don’t live in Minnesota, but I love the Strib website for Lileks.

myrenovations on March 30, 2009 at 2:55 PM

They’ve consistently presented very shallow in-depth reporting. They only go as deep as their liberal beliefs, rather than finding out the facts.

HotWeaver on March 30, 2009 at 3:01 PM

Not unless they start creating compelling content for the premium delivery, and that’s really been the Strib’s problem locally.

[NOT directed at Ed ...] It’s all about content, stupid!

DannoJyd on March 30, 2009 at 3:08 PM

Can’t they sell ads for online content? That whole dead tree thing isn’t a joke… I have so much paper around my house that it was a huge relief when I finally decided the newspaper was redundant and messy.

I much prefer reading online… it’s just cleaner. I don’t know how you combat that with print… you can’t make the papers pick themselves up off the floor and recycle. Now maybe if they dissolved or something… I sometimes buy the paper for the coupons. But anything interesting is going to be online or on the local news.

petunia on March 30, 2009 at 3:11 PM

Hey print media try this idea. Produce a Sunday edition which recaps major stories and uses the day by day timeline of your reporting. It would be pretty interesting to see how some stories evolve over the course of a week. Of course it would also probably point out the fact that several retractions were necessary to make up for the early reports.

Just A Grunt on March 30, 2009 at 3:12 PM

An enterprising individual worked the numbers a while back. They suggested that newspapers delivering content to the Kindle was cost effective vs using pulp. The consumer enters into a subscription deal like many do on cellphones. 1 yr contract, Kindle is free.

But the papers do need to improve their content. Kindle isn’t going to solve that.

Dr. Dog on March 30, 2009 at 3:19 PM

IMO the best business model is a full paper delivered to your morning kindle. Newspapers should set up a delivery method around the city that gives quick instant delivery to every subsricer of breaking news, a full version of itys paper and updates during the day. all of this can be done by the kindle or something like it. Have the newspapers purchase the kindle for their subscribers and charge a monthly fee like the cable and directtv charge for teir set tops.

the paper will save all the costs it now spends on printing and delivery. It would be great to wake up every morning to a fully downloaded paper that you can stuff in your briefcase and take withyou or read over coffee ect.

The papers are not thinking outside the box here.

unseen on March 30, 2009 at 3:50 PM

All you folks advocating delivery to your Kindle. Who the hell can afford a Kindle? Sorry I don’t run in those circles.

Just A Grunt on March 30, 2009 at 3:54 PM

There are two arguments at play here: whether we need journalism, and whether it has to have a paper-delivery mechanism to survive

I miss journalism. I am tired of propaganda and instructions how to live my life

Decades ago I used to read the Home section for how-to articles and product information. Information has not stopped but it is replaced with instructions on what I should and should not do for the planet, the nation or a political party.

The Food section used to share true recipes from famous chefs, local readers. Food sections today critique what you eat, and offer faked out recipes invented to get you to change your lifestyle

Entertainment has shrunk except for celebrity articles

The NYT used to be wonderful covering scientific advances. Now I avoid their offerings as manipulative

An article about an illegal alien raid in local papers is just another vehicle to promote the agenda of sharing

The Religion section is mostly a series of lectures worthy of the Archbishop of Canterbury

etc

I prefer hardcopy for many purposes. I stopped reading PC magazine since it went on line and will let my subscription die. I like to crash on the couch with a good read. That means hard print

Reading paper is a different experience for the eye and more relaxing than the unblinking wash of light from a monitor. Turning down the intensity of the monitor does not relax the eye like paper copy

Plus I line my garbage can with paper to absorb odors. It is a useful in disposal of items, protecting the floor when working, wrapping items for storage, and swatting the dog. It is there when the computer is down

All that is missing is the honest journalism

entagor on March 30, 2009 at 4:30 PM

They’ve thumbed their nose at and belittled the public for not supporting them for so long, they have deserved to go under long ago. A paper that gives people what they want, would thrive here.

oakpack on March 30, 2009 at 4:38 PM

It won’t work until newspapers learn how to “Report the news, not Create news”.

right2bright on March 30, 2009 at 6:20 PM

entagor on March 30, 2009 at 4:30 PM

So much truth in one post. Nothing beats relaxing with hard copy newsprint. Politicization of nearly everything destroyed that.

Chain ownership, with its synthetic culture, is often at odds with local sentiments. Looks like breaking those links will entail market actions I don’t wish upon them. Decentralized innovation is what could save newspapers. The inheritance tax helped destroy family-owned papers, by the way.

Distant ownership is centralized and inflexible, trusting its own minions and disposing of local favorites at will.

Feedie on March 30, 2009 at 6:59 PM

If people had wanted to pay for the Strib’s content, the paper version wouldn’t have had to go away.

James on March 30, 2009 at 7:28 PM

We do need journalism and whether it takes wood pulp to carry it is irrelevant. The deep dark secret that seems to be evading everyone’s notice is that it takes an enormous and concerted, even brutal effort to be rid of it. You don’t have to do a damned thing. Journalism is like a weed because every one of us with a fifth-grade education is more than capable of producing it in abundance. Better yet, the product of a single journalism can scale to an almost infinite number of people. Remember when three TV channels was plenty to keep most of America glued to the boob tube?

Don’t worry about saving journalism–you can’t kill it. Worry about saving democracy and preserving freedom from a far bigger threat than AQ.

Immolate on March 30, 2009 at 7:56 PM

make that “single journalist”

Immolate on March 30, 2009 at 7:56 PM

Immolate on March 30, 2009 at 7:56 PM

Well, it takes a strong stomach to endure the politicians we elect at public meetings. I’ll give them that.

Feedie on March 30, 2009 at 8:06 PM

Anybody remember the episode of “Lou Grant” in which Lou chewed out one of his reporters for showing anger at cops coaching girls soccer, who had sex with some of the under girls they were coaching.
.
I want my reporters pissed at the sight of evil.

darktood on March 30, 2009 at 8:16 PM

Look, the whole argument about whether the internet killed newspapers is falsely framed. Yes, the internet has eaten into their ad revenue, but the real damage the internet has done to newspapers is provide a variety of viewpoints.

When I see so many different perspectives online, but see only one in the newspaper, over and over, I naturally come to the conclusion that I would rather be picking from among many points of view than have some elitist pick for me and shelter me from any others.

Do I have a tendency to read those who agree with me? Sure I do, but a tendency is not the complete elimination of other views, the way it is if I get my news from a newspaper.

It’s pretty simple really… newspapers reflect an elitist view that assumes I cannot think for myself: one that I cannot influence or moderate, and one that they do not admit to. Newspapers are basically dishonest.

drunyan8315 on March 30, 2009 at 9:28 PM

drunyan8315 on March 30, 2009 at 9:28 PM

Yep, another good summary. I think I’d be less bugged if they dropped the pretense of objectivity, but it’s as ingrained as much as liberalism is a substitute religion.

For my local paper, I’d hoped contact with the Internet would have some effect. It does not appear to be the case. There are two political cultures in this country and they can’t communicate even though they both speak English (for now). Babylon?

Local people work there — one a young reporter who dove into the profession at this very difficult time. They work their guts out to tell the stories we need to be told. It kills me to see such people hurt by forces that came before their time.

I love my local paper and don’t wish them ill. They do so much for the community — telling the local stories, what the elected “characters” are doing, providing unsolicited publicity for local businesses and charities, people in trouble, and human interest. I’ve seen no evidence that blogs can substitute for this local commons.

Feedie on March 30, 2009 at 9:58 PM

People get local news from the local talking heads… what they care about it anyway. Most communities have free newspapers that do that as well. These dinosaur liberal newspapers need to go to dinosaur land and render themselves into oil. The fired staff and reporters can all go to motor grader repair school so they can get jobs fixing our crumbling infrastructure and the roads and levees. Or they can stand by for those magical green jobs of the future that Obama has promised.

kens on March 30, 2009 at 11:10 PM

A damp pile of paper sitting on my lawn is not “premium delivery.”

blueguitarbob on March 31, 2009 at 9:08 AM