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An experiment: Top content to print readers first

  • Article by: Nancy Barnes
  • Star Tribune Editor
  • March 28, 2009 - 6:23 PM

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.

These stories will be marked as print exclusives; over the next few weeks, you will start to see them on every section front in the Sunday paper. We will continue to post all breaking news online immediately, because the era of 24-hour news demands that. The best of our deep, exclusive content will be available online later in the week, unless we have a compelling reason to post it sooner. We have already asked the Associated Press not to distribute this content to other AP subscribers, so that our readers alone will get this content.

Dan Shorter, our president for digital, is a full and supportive partner in this experiment. We hope, in the short run, to let our print customers know that they are getting something that others are not. But mostly, we want to experiment more with how we deliver our content. We're going to watch and measure the results, collect reader feedback, and let that drive our decisionmaking about whether this is something we want to do permanently.

What types of stories will we hold back? Investigative projects, deeply reported nonbreaking news stories, beautifully written feature stories -- whatever content we think print readers might value most. Last week, for example, business reporter Chris Serres delivered a terrific story that no other journalist in the state had reported. He outlined how a large development company called Lakeland Construction Finance LLC managed to avoid regulatory oversight in raising and lending money to land speculators and developers of myriad real-estate projects around the state. Because it was a specialty lender -- not a bank -- it didn't have to exercise the same caution as a bank in lending money. When the real-estate market started to collapse, Lakeland defaulted on more than $400 million of its own loans and more than a dozen projects around the state went belly-up, creating development eyesores in Minnesota's cities and towns.

It's the type of story that takes weeks of reporting and documentation to bring to readers. It's the type of story you'll read first in the Sunday paper as this experiment plays out.

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Next week, the Homes section will move from Saturday to Sunday, and will combine with some Sunday advertising sections. Many of our Sunday readers do not get the daily paper and miss out on the best of our home and real-estate coverage; we hope you enjoy this addition to the paper starting April 5.

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