Not too long ago, I was reading a novel in which the protagonist's girlfriend worked at a European newspaper, which was always on the brink of financial distress. No wonder, the protagonist mused as he checked out his cellphone, because they were giving all their stories away for free on his mobile. How did anyone expect that to work?
How indeed? When even popular fiction writers are poking fun of your industry's business acumen, you know you are in a heap of trouble.
Today, however, the news industry is on track to restore a core tenet that should never have been lost: Content has value.
Last year, the Star Tribune implemented a strategy of metering all of our digital sites and newsreading apps, allowing readers to sample up to 20 free articles a month but requiring a subscription for heavy consumption. The next step, publisher Mike Klingensmith said, will be to lower the meter to 10 free articles beginning Nov. 1. However, visitors will continue to have unlimited access to the home page, photo galleries, video and other interactive elements.
The Star Tribune's initial digital strategy was modeled loosely after that of the New York Times, which put a meter on all digital assets last year (and lowered the meter in March of this year). At the time, these moves to ask readers to pay for content that is delivered online and to mobile phones were considered bold and risky. One short year later, however, digital subscriptions, meters and paywalls are quickly becoming the norm across the industry, and have proven successful in bringing in new revenue from consumers.
This year, Gannett became the latest news company to aggressively embrace some form of paywall in 71 of its markets, and it recently reported gains in subscription revenue because of that decision. Press+, a company that provides publishers the tools to develop digital subscriptions, now has 380 customers, including 300 U.S. newspapers, said Gordon Crovitz, one of its cofounders and an adviser to media companies. (Crovitz, a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, also sits on the Star Tribune's board of directors.)
While paywalls and meters are not a panacea, they have removed the incentive for readers to drop their print subscriptions in favor of getting all their news online for free. Over time, this strategy will also help news organizations maintain strong newsrooms, dedicated to delivering quality content to all of their subscribers, regardless of where and how they get their news.
The Star Tribune has the largest newsgathering force by far in Minnesota, and we are proud of the depth and breadth of the content we deliver in print, online, for mobile and to all of our news apps and newsreading devices. We've also steadily beefed up our content in digital, adding more video, photo galleries, interactive graphics and even a traffic columnist to serve our mobile readers. Producing that content, however, is expensive, and that's why it was imperative that we change the expectation that this content can be had for free.
So where do we stand a year after we put a meter on our content? Star Tribune's total print and digital circulation exceeds 300,000 daily and 500,000 on Sunday and continues to grow. Of that, we currently have about 20,000 new digital customers (not counting the print readers who also have been given digital access). We expect that number to climb over the years as more people switch from reading in print to reading on a digital device, especially on weekdays.
That transition is inevitable, given the fact that just about everyone seems to have a smartphone in his or her pocket, and many households now have multiple computers or tablets. Just this year, for example, e-book sales eclipsed those of hardcover sales.
What's no longer inevitable is that we will lose a subscriber when they make that transition, or that we will be portrayed as bumbling chumps for allowing that to happen.
Nancy Barnes is editor of the Star Tribune.