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Newspaper websites move in new direction

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Scott Angus
August 27, 2012

When newspapers first fired up websites in the 1990s, nearly all posted their content for free, hoping to lure eyeballs and then sell those eyeballs to advertisers.

Free was the way to go, the logic went, as long as advertisers saw the value and dollars flowed.

Skeptics raised concerns about damage to newspapers, which people still had to pay to read. Why would they pay for content in print when they could get it free online?

The skeptics were dismissed, though, and free content dominated the Internet. Until now. Things are changing in the web world, and they are changing quickly.

Although many people visited newspaper websites, advertisers didn’t flock to them in the numbers we had anticipated. And they weren’t willing to pay as much as we had hoped. The value of web ads took time to be established, and the process continues.

In the meantime, newspaper sales began to slide. Other factors contributed, but free web content played a role.

Now, newspapers are re-evaluating the free-content strategy. Many have started subscription models, requiring people to pay to read what’s on their websites. Some have metered sites, which allow a certain number of free visits before the charge kicks in. Some have flat paywalls, meaning the best content is available only to those who pay.

The Gazette is about to join the growing crowd of newspapers that require payment for access to their websites. Our strategy is still being developed, but the change will come this fall.

Will people howl? Will people look for other free sources of the same information? Will our web traffic initially decline? The answer is yes to all three, but so be it.

What we do costs money. We have 30 journalists who work hard to provide the best local content possible. They must be paid. We have other costs that must be considered. We can’t continue to give away our valuable content.

If people think they can go elsewhere for the same local stories, photos and other information, they are wrong. We cover this region like no other media, and that exclusive local content that will be reserved for our paying customers.

Not everything will require payment. Some content—such as brief breaking news stories, national and world news, and basic community information—will be free. We’ll also offer headlines and short summaries of other articles to show visitors what’s behind the wall.

If we’re going to ask people to pay, though, we know we must improve gazettextra.com. We’re buying a new online computer system to help, and we have many ideas.

For starters, we’ll post stories as soon as possible, rather than holding them as we now do to give our print customers a head start. We’ll also post all of the content from our paper, including editorials, letters to the editor, Sound Off, kicks stories, Anna Marie Lux’s columns and much more. We’ll pursue content that’s better suited for the web than print.

We’re not forgetting our advertisers. We believe our web traffic will remain high enough to provide an incentive for businesses to promote their goods and services, and our paying visitors will be strong candidates to shop locally.

Through all of this, the print Gazette will remain the foundation of our franchise. Our circulation has held its own during much of the web revolution, and we think this strategy will bolster it more.

This is a big change for our industry and for The Gazette. Not everyone in our business thinks it’s the right approach. We do, and we’re confident that a vast majority of our customers will see the logic and value of our new model.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His email is sangus@gazettextra.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @sangus_.



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