With traditional newspapers folding left and right, it’s no surprise that the newspaper business is no bowl of cherries these days. According to this WSJ Digits blog post, that uncertainty is prompting Houston’s main daily newspaper — the Houston Chronicle — to consider some big changes:
Hearst said its newspapers plan to hold back at least some content from their free Web sites, launching the publisher onto the vanguard of print media companies to begin charging for their digital news and information.
A top executive at Hearst, which publishes 16 newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, said the company is mulling how much of its online offerings to keep free, while reserving some content exclusively for people who pay.
“Exactly how much paid content to hold back from our free sites will be a judgment call made daily by our management, whose mission should be to run the best free Web sites in our markets without compromising our ability to get a fair price from consumers for the expensive, unique reporting and writing that we produce each day,” Steven Swartz, the president of Hearst newspapers, said in a staff memo.
The text of the staff memo is included at the end of the blog post.
Meanwhile, financial blogger Felix Salmon, who has been following the newspaper website subscription issue for the past couple of years, thinks that the Wall Street Journal’s website subscription model — which is the business model that the Chron hopes to mirror — is doomed to failure:
My feeling is that [WSJ editor Robert] Thomson was entirely right when he said that [news] commentary had become commoditized, and that therefore you couldn’t charge for it; he also said the same thing about most news. But what he calls "specialized content" is to a large degree just taking commoditized news, and adding the kind of value that comes from informed commentators.
Yes, there are things which Dow Jones the WSJ can do and no one else can do in quite the same way — Thomson was interesting when he started talking about selling content on the subject of India to Japan, for instance. And in a world where Dow Jones is looking to individual subscriptions to make up the losses from corporate subscriptions, it’s going to be very difficult for them to start slashing those individual subscription rates to zero.
But I suspect that eventually the WSJ will do the math and work out that the best way to monetize and grow its large number of unique visitors is to maximize the time they spend on the site. And the best way to do that is to go free.
Give the Chronicle credit for taking risks in a battle for survival rather than simply fading away as many other newspapers are doing. However, I am not convinced that the Chron’s pay-for-some-content approach has much of a chance of succeeding.
Frankly, the Chronicle simply does not appear capable of producing the type of specialized content that is necessary even to have a chance of generating the level of individual subscriptions that will be necessary for success.
For example, the Chron was inexplicably behind other major newspapers and blogs in its coverage of the recent Stanford Financial Group scandal. Its follow-up coverage really has not provided any meaningful content that cannot be found elsewhere from free news sources and blogs.
Moreover, even where the Chron indisputably takes the lead in regard to a local story of national interest — such as the newspaper’s excellent coverage of the various legal cases involving former U.S. District Judge Sam Kent or its amazing coverage of Hurricane Ike — the information generated is still not sufficiently distinguishable from other free news sources so that readers will be likely to pay for the content.
Don’t get me wrong. The Chronicle is not without talent. Tech columnist Dwight Silverman is one of the most-respected writers in his field. Science reporter Eric Berger does a fine job, and Todd Ackerman has done a first-rate job of covering the Medical Center for years. Ditto for Nancy Sarnoff in regard to local real estate. The Chron sports bloggers Stephanie Stradley, Lance Zierlein and Zac Levine provide better content and analysis than the Chron’s sportswriters. I’m leaving others out who also do a fine job.
But is the specialized product that such talent generates sufficient to induce enough online readers to pay for content so that the Chronicle can transform itself into a profitable web-based news provider?
When even longtime Chronicle subscribers are seriously thinking about giving up their subscriptions, I have my doubts.