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.