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I’m skeptical, but I’m impressed. Yesterday’s announcement that the Boston Globe will move most of its content to a subscription-based website sometime in the second half of 2011 shows that Globe executives know where their strengths are and that they’re prepared to think innovatively to protect those strengths.
The Globe’s dilemma is that it has an enormously successful free website, Boston.com, that is quite different from the paper itself. Start charging for access to Boston.com, and many of those 5 million unique visitors a month would vanish.
The solution: keep Boston.com free, but split off the Globe’s content into a separate, paid site called BostonGlobe.com, currently a free subsite. The decision raises lots of questions. Perhaps the biggest is how much free Globe content will be posted on Boston.com, and whether Boston.com will remain as popular once it has to stand on its own.
Still, it’s a far more interesting idea than the metered model embraced by the Globe’s parent company, the New York Times Co., which rolled it out at the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester recently and which will give it a go at the flagship paper sometime next year. Under the metered model, readers can access so many articles for free each month, after which they have to pay. It might work for the T&G and the Times, but it would have been deadly for Boston.com.
Yesterday I conducted an e-mail interview with Globe publisher Christopher Mayer, which he graciously agreed to do because I still can’t take notes. (Although it’s getting better. I’ve got a pillow propped up and am typing two-handed now for the first time since my accident.) Our unedited conversation follows. I’ve got a few closing thoughts after the jump.
Q: The metered model seemed to be the way the New York Times Co. was going. Why did you choose something different?
A: We’ve said all along that each organization would need to come up with a custom-made approach that takes into account unique market factors. We felt this was the best course for us, given the fact that we have two strong brands and essentially two different types of users of our Boston.com site. We have the opportunity to build a free site and a subscription-based site, and based upon extensive research, that emerged as the best option for us.
Q: The advantage of the metered model is that you’re not entirely cut off from the great conversation that’s taking place on blogs and in social media. Are you concerned about breaking a big story and not having as much impact as you should because people can’t link to you? Please address what Clay Shirky said about the importance of online sharing with respect to the Globe’s reporting on the pedophile-priest story.
A: We don’t intend to be cut off from the conversation. We haven’t announced, or even worked out, all the details of what will be on which site. But we can envision that some full-text Globe stories will be available on the free site. I suspect we would have put many of the initial priest sex-abuse stories on the free site because that Spotlight Team investigation was viewed as clear public service reporting. In the future, we’ll make those judgments as appropriate.
Q: Based on the information you have put out, it sounds like BostonGlobe.com is going to be more robust and interesting than GlobeReader. What is the future of GlobeReader? How many people subscribe to it? The current, free BostonGlobe.com is among the slowest news sites I have encountered. Will that be fixed before you start charging?
A: GlobeReader will continue as one part of our digital product offerings, and we don’t give out specific subscription numbers on that sort of thing. As for site speed, while I think you’re being a bit hyperbolic in how you characterize the “Today’s Globe” portion of our site, I’ll just say that we continue to work on improving speed. We know that it’s very important.
Q: Isn’t Boston.com going to suffer because editors will now have to decide whether or not to let Dave Beard’s successor publish Globe content for free on a story-by-story basis? Is this one of the reasons Dave decided to leave?
As far as I know, David left because he was presented with a promising job opportunity and not because of our new approach to digital. With regard to your other question: (a) We believe we can maintain high traffic levels with the enormous volume of stories and other content — news updates, blogs, photo galleries, video, chats, etc. — that our newsroom of writers, web producers, editors, photographers, graphics artists, and others provide for Boston.com throughout the day; (b) Some full-text Globe stories are likely to appear on Boston.com under certain circumstances that we’re not yet prepared to discuss in more detail. We’ll have protocols in the newsroom for determining what those will be, and the editor of Boston.com will be involved every step of the way.
Q: I can’t imagine many people would sign up just for BostonGlobe.com. But I can imagine many people paying a fee to get some combination of the Sunday paper, BostonGlobe.com, GlobeReader, a cellphone app like the Times’, an iPad app, etc. I guess what I’m asking is this: How does today’s announcement fit into an overall strategy of paid content across a variety of digital platforms?
A: A subscription to the Globe will include free access to BostonGlobe.com and other digital products we may develop. Also, people will be offered a digital combination subscription that will give them access to other our subscription-based digital products, including BostonGlobe.com and a range of apps. So we are planning to offer various combinations of the paper and digital as well as digital-only products.
Some closing thoughts
Frankly, I had no reason to think Boston.com editor Dave Beard decided to leave for the National Journal because of yesterday’s announcement. Everyone, including him, has known for months that the Globe was moving to paid content. Nevertheless, I tweeted the question to him via DM yesterday, and here is what he said:
National Journal is an extraordinary opportunity that matched my reason for entering journalism: to make a difference. I also would have relished the challenge of helping creating a new, even more community-driven Boston.com with flavors of Jim Brady and Steve Buttry’s TBD website in Washington.
Yes, that’s more than 140 characters; Beard did it in three tweets.
In this morning’s Globe, columnist Brian McGrory sneers at “every high-brow thinker in the new media business [who] has condescendingly repeated a phrase that is somehow as insidious as it is inane: Information wants to be free.” This is an oft-repeated bastardization of something Stewart Brand said in 1984:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
I know of no serious media thinkers who believe journalism ought to be free. The question has always been, Who pays? Fifteen years ago, when we were first starting down this road, it seemed reasonable to believe that newspapers might be able to support themselves solely with advertising once they had eliminated their printing and distribution costs. Then the advertising business as we knew it ceased to exist thanks to Craigslist, the rise of big-box stores and the like.
Today, the Globe still faces a huge hurdle. It may be the largest and most comprehensive news organization in Eastern Massachusetts, but it faces a range of competition online that users might decide is good enough. The non-profit WBUR.org is the first site that comes to mind, but this morning, every local television executive is thinking of beefing up his or her website. The Globe still has daily online competition from the Boston Herald as well. (Herald owner Pat Purcell plays his cards close to the vest today.)
Finally, some disclosures. Rob Gavin quotes me in his Globe story today on the changes. And Northeastern University is at the beginning stages of having our students supply stories to Boston.com’s new network of city Your Town sites — a project in which I’ll be directly involved.
I would wish the Globe well in any case. More than anything, I’m glad we’re not talking about this anymore.