Monday, August 01, 2011

Lee Enterprise newspapers moving (fast) to subscription-based web content (guest essay)

7th in a series on troubles at The Post-Star and its parent Lee Enterprises

by Mark Wilson


The on-again-off-again romance between the Post-Star and the internet subscription paywall looks like it might soon heat up again.

Lee Enterprises, the Davenport, Iowa-based parent company of the Post-Star announced suddenly yesterday that it will begin requiring visitors to the websites of its Montana and Wyoming newspapers pay a subscription if they wish to read more than a few stories per month. Access to the papers’ home pages, classified sections, and a few other features will remain free, regardless of the number of visits. According to the editor of the Montana Standard, the subscription plan begins today for the Billings Gazette, the Helena Independent Record, The Missoulian, and Ravalli Republic in Montana, and the Casper Star Tribune in Wyoming.

The head office’s new policy seems to have blind-sided some of the publications. The Billings Gazette and the Ravalli Republic in notices to their readers claim the new “reader meter” allows visitors twenty free stories in any given thirty day period, while the Montana Standard and Helena IR claim the system will allow fifteen free pages for any of the affected websites. Neither The Missoulian nor the Casper Star Tribune websites made any announcement of the new policy on Sunday.

No telling if this policy in the northern rockies will spread to any of Lee’s 43 other newspaper properties (including the Post-Star). The company is in financial disarray, and is looking for any way to generate new income and attract investors to boost its dangerously deflated stock. This might be the company’s next hail Mary pass.

The Post-Star flirted with subscription-based web content a decade ago—a move which led to the online division between PostStar.net (for paying customers) and PostStar.com (for everyone else). Visitors preferred the free site in numbers large enough to convince the publisher to drop the firewall altogether and offer all content for free. In February last year, after deciding to pull Letters to the Editor and other items from the website, Editorial Page Editor Mark Mahoney sent out an e-mail plea to editors around the country for information on how to make the paper’s website profitable. The plea made its way online, where it was unfortunately ridiculed for its loose grammar and desperate tone.

Perhaps enough time has passed since the Post-Star’s last traumatic break-up with subscriber-only content. After all, the paper and its readers are older, more mature. Maybe the paper is ready for a fuller commitment to the relationship this time. After all, the Schenectady Gazette is making a go of it with its readers. So is The New York Times. Maybe, by golly, its time to take the big plunge. No regrets. ‘Til death do us part.

Then again, maybe the Post-Star won’t have a choice in the matter. A shotgun marriage is being arranged at this very moment in Iowa. Expect an invitation from the Lee family at any moment.

10 comments:

Brian said...

In fairness, people tend to be a little bit looser with grammar in emails, myself included. I'm more concerned about the collapsing standards of grammar and spelling in the actual newspaper product. Carelessness on small things does not inspire confidence in attention to detail on big things. It can also be confusing. One example that comes to mind is a headline that read "(Football coach) resigns" when it should have been re-signs. That's quite a big difference.

MARQUIL said...

Hey, I totally live in a glass house where line editing is concerned (I'm still counting the mistakes in my own post). That said, I don't feel it is too out of line to expect "professional editors" to possess certain skills that I lack. When the Editor of the Post-Star writes a post complaining about the poor grammar of people who write Letters to the Editor and entitles it (not ironically) "Readers need a proof reader too," (Feb 1, 2010) you know the paper has fired one proofreader too many.

Mark Wilson said...

I incorrectly stated that neither the Wyoming Star-Tribune nor the Missoulian of Montana mentioned the new online metering policy on Sunday. Chad Baldwin, Editor of the Star-Tribune published a column appearing in the newspaper's opinion pages and online introducing the changes on Sunday. The Missoulian published a news article on the new policy on Monday.

My apologies to Mr. Baldwin for the incorrect statement.

Brian said...

Editor Tingley hinted at a PS paywall in a recent blog: http://poststar.com/app/blogs/?p=70320&cat=49

Mark Mahoney said...

FYI. That comment I made was on the list-serve for the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was intended solely as a professional inquiry and for discussion among colleagues. It was not intended for public disclosure. We had had a discussion about paywalls here at the paper, and I was just trying to get information from my fellow editorial writers around the country about what their papers were doing so I could share their insights with the folks here in Glens Falls. Unfortunately, an editor, without my permission, posted my comment word for word on a public blog and it was picked up on the internet. My conversation was casual, appropriate for our list-serve, and my "loose grammar" was a repeat of a word. I have since learned my lesson not to have frank, open discussions -- even among colleagues -- for fear of my comments and questions being taken out of context and placed online. I think that's a shame because those frank discussions often produced a lot of interesting insight and information.

Brian said...

I still think that emails and articles/editorials should be judged by different standards. Partly because of the different nature (private vs public) of them and partly because one is edited or proofread by someone else and one isn't. I consider that I have a pretty good grasp of English grammar and spelling but I still make the occasional error as well. It's said that one should never be the final editor of one's own work, but in emails, it's typically unavoidable.

(And the editor who wrote the post complaining about commenters' grammar was Mr. Tingley not

Brian said...

I think a paywall would be interesting because it would show exactly what readers value. Free is one thing but I wonder how many locals would pay even a dime for stories about a snake infested house in Idaho or the governor of PA on a kayaking trip...

Anonymous said...

A little sunshine never hurt anyone, Mr. Mahoney.

Brian said...

... says the person who refuses to sign his/her name.

Jenna said...

Such a great article it was which The on-again-off-again romance between the Post-Star and the internet subscription paywall looks like it might soon heat up again. In which the on-again-off-again romance between the Post-Star and the internet subscription paywall looks like it might soon heat up again. Thanks for sharing this article.