≡ Menu

Newspapers and Digital Subscriptions

Tampabay.com has begun offering a digital subscription for some users of the site. Readers will be allowed to access 15 pages a month for free, but will be asked to subscribe if they use more. While the homepage, several areas within the site and a select number of stories will remain free, others will be part of a digital subscription plan.

For years, I’ve loved my local newspaper – the St. Pete Times. A couple of months ago, they did what I considered to be a pretty horrible redesign, and also rebranded as the “Tampa Bay Times”. This morning, I noticed that they were going the way of other newspapers to put content behind a paywall. Their CEO, Paul Tash, notes:

After making substantial improvements to tampabay.com, we now ask readers who turn most often to our website to help support it financially…Tampabay.com still offers free access up to a point — set now at 15 page views per month. To get past that ceiling, readers need to register and pay.

While I am no expert on the newspaper industry, this just seems like bad business sense. Not the subscription part – I get that people have to make money, and the print newspaper subscription are likely not justifying the investment in digital infrastructure. It’s the arbitrary limit part. Why 15 page views? Why per month? Does pulling up a story I already ready to show it to my wife count as 2 page views?

If they really wanted to win my business, here’s three things that I think all newspapers could start doing to get my subscription dollars:

Create tiers of content

A newspaper is where I go to find out two distinct pieces of information. What’s going on around me that I need to know right away, and what things are going on which I should know about. The second half of that is where great journalism comes into play. For example, the Times’ coverage of both the Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant fiasco as well as their in-depth reporting on Scientology are well worth knowing about – and paying for.

So make the critical content – the day to day stories – free. Make the value add – the critical journalism, the commentaries, the follow-ups, a reason to pay.

Add value to stories

Paul Tash, in his statement about the paywall, has this to say:

This change reflects the growing importance of electronic publishing. Most of our news breaks first on tampabay.com. It features video, special reports, blogs and archives that go beyond the possibilities of print.

Frankly, I could care less about video reports. I don’t really watch them. But I know others do, and see it as a value add. So let that be an option to add on videos. Give subscribers early access to articles. I don’t like the archives being behind paywalls – that seems to primarily hurt people who want to do research on topics. In fact, perhaps content after one year should be free to view.

Don’t base value on arbitrary numbers

The biggest gripe I have is the arbitrary page view limit. It doesn’t delineate between good articles and bad ones. Or short and tall. I read a 20 word blurb, and then click through to a 2,500 word piece of art, and they are considered the same.

It makes me think of if publishers controlled e-ink books, and you started reading, and after 15 pages all of the ink went away. Puzzled, you looked up to see a man with a baseball bat reminding you that if you really wanted to read the stories, you’d pay up.

It’s great that they are making an effort to say that if the story is on the front page, that doesn’t count (as long as you don’t click through, I think). But it’s completely meaningless beyond that.

Show me the value

If you want to get my money (and they want $144 a year for a digital subscription!) then they should show why I should give it to them. Saying, “Well, because we’re a newspaper and this is our business model we’ve had forever” isn’t going to cut it. Granted, I pay for the Wall Street Journal on my iPad – because I see the value of having it tailored to my device (even if I don’t always care for the way they did it).

You clearly know you have value to add. Use that to your advantage of convincing people to pay for something they’ve gotten for free for 15 years now. Otherwise it will be another sad chapter in the demise of the newspaper industry.