Monthly Archives: August 2009

My Star-Ledger Is Free; So Is

We were in Chicago over the weekend, and I saw a fascinating hedline in The Chicago Tribune. It wasn't on a news story — it was on an ad distributed with the paper. Subscribe to The Trib for $1 a week.

That seemed like a good deal for readers, but I guess there will be plenty of people in the Tribune circulation area who still won't take the deal. It's not because they don't want to pay for content — it's that they don't value the experience of sitting down and leafing through a printed newspaper. Listen to nonreaders: rather than cite a newspaper as a convenience, they'll complain about papers stacking up, about the inconvenience of having to put paper out on recycling day.

Back in North Jersey, The Star-Ledger landed on our front lawn this morning, just as it has many weekdays and every Sunday for about two months. One problem: we don't subscribe to the paper. We didn't ask for the paper, we don't get billed by the Star-Ledger and we don't pay for delivery. The printed Star-Ledger costs me exactly what it costs me to read the same content on — nothing.

I used to work as an editor in Philadelphia, where I had plenty of meetings with marketing, circulation and sales people. I also participated in focus groups and reviewed studies about readership. 

Do readers pay for content? Ask your circ people and your marketing people how they get new subscribers. They can cite stats on kiosk sales, direct mail, phone banks. It costs money to sign up a subscriber — even for just 13 weeks. Most big city metros have high levels of churn. In Philadelphia, a huge response to news or commentary was dwarfed by other factors. When a political endorsement angered readres and resulted in something like 600 cancelations, we learned that more people had canceled in that same period because they had died. Do readers pay for content? Turn the question around: what do papers pay for a new sub? I recall seeing figures from $30 to $50 a sub. Anyone have more current figures?

The marketing people study this all the time. Read the direct mail pieces they send out — pieces  scripted to maximize results. There is very little there about news coverage, but plenty about utility and convenience.

We had some conversations, too, about the number of people who ever said they canceled because the news was available free online. If you are talking to your circ people, ask for that figure. They usually do exit interviwes with at least a sample of readers who cancel. If the number who cite free content online was a notable number, the circ people would be pounding on the editor's door. Silence on that count told me all I needed to know when I met with them.

I asked another question: how many new subscriptions came over the transom, with readers who unsolicitied went to the paper's website and ordered the paper. I forget the exact number now, but it was in the thousands, and the circ department valued those readers — they always provided credit card information so they never had to be billed.

Steve Buttry of Gazette Communications has stirred the pay wall conversation with an insightful post on his blog. Other bright minds, including Tim O'Brien of The NYTimes and the media critic Bill Wyman have also kept the converstaion moving along. I have a question for Tim, who lives near me in North Jersey — do you receive a free Star-Ledger, too?

Buttry is trying to move the conversation past the pay-no-pay point to a discussion about other ways a multi-platform and multi-media newsroom can help partner with businesses that need to reach customers. That will be the way to build revenue for news organzations. That's the important conversation Buttry keeps prodding smart editors and publishers into joining.

The heated discussion illuminates many points, but nothing makes the point quite as clear as the pound and a half of newsprint dropped on my lawn this morning — free of charge.

— Carl Lavin

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