The Providence Journal’s print-first strategy

During the same week that the Boston Globe started charging for much of its online content and the New York Times announced it has signed up 324,000 paying digital customers, the Providence Journal unveiled its new website — a prelude to its long-promised (or long-threatened) paywall.

The new ProvidenceJournal.com — goodbye, Projo.com — includes just the first few paragraphs of most stories. If you want to read the whole paper online, you have to subscribe to one of those miserable e-editions, a PDF-like format that is difficult to navigate and even more difficult to read. (The Journal’s implementation does seem to be slightly less miserable than others I’ve seen.) There’s an iPad version, too.

Ted Nesi, who’s been writing about the Journal for WPRI.com, says it’s not yet clear what access will cost after the current free trial period expires. But this is not a digital strategy — it’s a print strategy, built on the idea of downgrading the Journal’s electronic presence. Nesi and I talked last December, when the Journal announced the new direction, and what I said then seems to apply now:

The Journal is sacrificing its website in order to bolster its print edition, which is where it makes most of its money. I understand why Journal managers are doing this, but it’s a short-term solution that could prove harmful in the long term. I also wonder whether it will even accomplish anything. Newspaper readers are skimmers, and a headline and brief synopsis of a story may be all that they want.

The Times is proving that people will pay for a well-thought-out, reasonably priced online edition. The Globe is about to learn whether readers in Greater Boston will do the same. The Journal, by contrast, is looking backwards. It might even work — but for no more than a few years.

14 thoughts on “The Providence Journal’s print-first strategy

  1. Personally, since announced, depending on how it would fit into my budget, my plan had been to pay to get behind the paywall. The Journal is no doubt diminished, but it still provides valuable news to Rhode Island.

    Before Tuesday, I would read the ProJo daily with two feeds from the site feeding into my RSS Reader (News Feed and their 7to7 blog which was updated throughout the day). Since Tuesday, I have not read the ProJo as they’ve done away with their feeds. I simply do not consume news by visiting the site (which is astonishingly lacking in content anyway) and I do not have the time nor the patients to sit and try to navigate their travesty of an eEdition (which looks straight out of 1997 and is one of the most annoying interfaces I’ve ever encountered).

    Since Tuesday I’ve subscribed to more WPRI feeds (I’ve been subscribe to Ted Nesi’s feed on politics and media since he’s been there). I also follow WJAR and a few local reporters on Twitter. Am I less informed than I was on Monday? I’m not sure.

    Their strategy seems to be print, and they seem to be super excited to offer an iPad edition. It has been pointed out that iPad penetration is really tiny, many people have smart phone, but very few, especially in Rhode Island where unemployment is over 10%, have iPads.

    They may see some traction on the print end, but they’ve really alientated a lot of younger loyal readers who had their checkbooks out and were just waiting to find out how much it was going to be for a sane, 21st century, web/mobile product. They did not provide anything remotely satisfying for those customers. They’re going to have to do a lot of work to get those people back.

  2. Mike Benedict

    Couple thoughts.

    1. I’m not sure whether this statement — “Newspaper readers are skimmers, and a headline and brief synopsis of a story may be all that they want.” — refers to online newspaper readers or print newspaper readers or both. Either way, it’s a hard hypothesis to swallow. If the former, then no one would ever click beyond the first page, and if the latter, no one would buy the paper at all.

    2. If ProJo (not sure why they would change that, btw) makes money from its print, and that’s where advertisers want to place their dollars, then they should push that part of the business. How does it make sense to push a less profitable business over a more profitable one? The barriers to entry on the web are miniscule. If ProJo chooses to pursue a deeper Web strategy down the road, getting to best in class won’t take a gargantuan effort.

    We tend to always look ahead, but what if perhaps some micromarkets are simply more interested in conventional technology than leading edge?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Mike: Newspapers make most of their revenue from their Sunday print editions — as much as two-thirds. By including all electronic versions with home delivery of the Sunday paper, as the Times and the Globe have, they are protecting the franchise and giving people a reason not to cancel the Sunday paper (or to start getting the Sunday paper). By contrast, the Journal basically wants you to stop reading the paper online and to go back to the print edition. A few will. Not enough.

  3. They could offer a web strategy down the road, but if people like me, who were ready to pay for what was already on offer online the day before the change have moved on by then and found that other options satisfy the void left by no longer reading the ProJo, then are we going to come back when they’ve sussed it all out?

    They announced this move over a year ago, they should have had their web strategy ready to go by now. There’s really no excuse for them to be sorting it out later. Really, if they did not build this new site and pathetic eEdition and just told me I was going to have to pay for the site they had on Monday, I would have paid. They’ve decide to pursue a rapidly diminishing print readership instead.

  4. I’d agree with the “skimmers” statement. Even before newspapers went online, the highest compliment you could receive was “I liked your story so much, I even read past the jump.”

    Online, I keep telling the writers that they need to make their ledes all the more compelling, to make people want to click past the headline and first few sentences to read the rest of the story.

    As far as the ProJo’s move is concerned — once you get out of the habit of picking up a print paper, it’s hard to go back. We dropped the Globe a couple years ago when the delivery cost more than doubled, at first intending to just get the Sunday paper. I’d forget to pick it up and, you know, we really didn’t miss it that much. I’d skim the website.

    I liked the Globe’s new format during the trial month but I think if I’m going to pay for anything, it will end up being the New York Times. NYT became my go-to spot because of its iPhone app (superior to Boston.com’s) which, of course, goes with me everywhere without having to look for a newsstand!

  5. If one wants to be nostalgic about the glory days of newspapers, this is a sad day for the Providence Journal, because they are choosing to harvest every dime they can out of a quickly dying print (and subscriber pay) business model, and more importantly, burning any bridge to the future (or present, depending on how you look at it).

    In the short-term, it’s also a sad day for Rhode Island, because this path will harm the people of that state. It will mean the further decline and eventual death of the biggest watchdog of government, corruption, corporations, and that will harm the communities it has protected.

    On the other hand, such an over-the-top move in this direction at least signals to a new ecosystem of entrepreneurial journalists that the door is wide open for them to find a place in the new news ecology in Rhode Island and step into the watchdog role that the Providence Journal used to fill.

  6. Rick Laferriere

    I tested out the e-edition of projo yesterday and found it to be just awful. It’s a pain to navigate up and down a page and several links within stories were not clickable.

    I would not pay for that aggravation. Knowing this was coming for some time, I thought I would be able to subscribe to the Sunday print edition and get access to all of the online content. But that option is off the table.

    I agree with Jef that the new web design makes me pine for the older projo.com layout. Haven’t yet figured out if it’s a case of just having to get used to something different, or if it’s a fundamentally flawed design.

    Also, agree its a bad idea to drop the brand name projo.com/.

  7. Mike Benedict

    @Dan: You are right, of course, about how newspapers get their money. My point is that instead of concentrating on a market that is chockful of competitors — online — many of whom can do everything what ProJo can do but better, perhaps ProJo is making a wise choice by focusing on the one thing it can do better than anyone else. Furthermore, while the web may be free to readers, it is not free to content providers. Perhaps ProJo is admitting that it can’t be great in web and print, so it is deciding to run with the most profitable path. In any other industry, we would be calling it a wise choice.

    I lived in Providence for a year in the late 1990s and found it to be charming but utterly oblivious to the outside world (read: anything north of Pawtucket). Is it possible Providence is simply less plugged in than the rest of the region/country? Perhaps ProJo has market data that says its readers don’t care about online news?

    Again, I haven’t heard anything to contradict that the ProJo couldn’t, in five years or whenever, decide to get back into the web and in a big way. And if by that time Google owns the Internet, it would only underscore the near-term wisdom of ProJo’s decision.

  8. Matt Kelly

    >>The Times is proving that people will pay for a well-thought-out, reasonably priced online edition.

    The Times has only proven that in a nation of 310 million people, enough high-brown readers exist who will pay for the best-quality news in the country. That’s a very different problem than whether the much smaller population of Providence will pay for local news they can pick up elsewhere for free.

    I’m not saying the ProJo’s solution will work, but the ProJo has a different problem than the Times. The Times is a unique example, not comparable to other newspapers. The Globe’s scheme would be a better analogy– but then, I’m not paying for their site either, and so far I haven’t missed it.

  9. Add me to the list of people who would’ve been willing to pay for the old site, but simply will not pay for the new one.

    And that’s what gets me – by adding the eEdition and removing all print content from their site, they made their online product worse – and for what? To frustrate online readers enough so they’ll come back to the print edition? That simply won’t work, especially among younger readers – many of whom have never picked up a newspaper in their lives.

    The root of the problem is not that the newspaper is more profitable than the web site, but that the top three people at the Projo’s helm have been there for a combined 84 years and simply lack the innovative thinking to make the site profitable.

    In fact, in an attempt to make the paper more profitable, they made the site *less* profitable by significantly reducing pageviews and expecting to charge for a product that is inferior to the web site that had been in existence for 10 years.

    One side note: when I complained on the Projo’s Facebook page about the lack of RSS feeds (as Jef mentioned in a previous comment), I was told that the site “wasn’t perfect” and there’s “more to come.” In other words, the Projo launched a site that was unfinished in a seeming effort to drive people away from the site and back to print. That’s just not good business… especially when it alienates people like me, who live out of town, and have no access to the print edition.

  10. Mike Benedict

    @Chris: Maybe that’s just it, though: Since you are out of town, perhaps the ProJo doesn’t see you as a prospective customer and thus discounts your opinion. And since you are out of town, it is unlikely you will buy any of the products marketed via their website (which makes it unlikely you would click on the ads, either).

    Many seem to think a web-heavy strategy is the only way to go for news media. And perhaps you are right: the editors are outdated and reluctant to change. But is seems to me that expending resources in a battle they can’t win is a dead-end street. What I haven’t seen put forth here is the notion that a better online product is a viable solution for the ProJo’s financial future. So where does that leave them?

    Indeed, I doubt ProJo could win a digital battle: the revenue doesn’t exist to support a large organization covering local news, and ProJo doesn’t have the resources to compete nationally with the likes of an NYT, as Matt Kelly points outs above. They have been cornered, so why not extract as much profit as they can out of the one product local advertisers seem willing to support.

    I’m not trying to be argumentative here. I just think there is more to the picture than is being assumed.

  11. @Mike: Well, that’s the funny thing: I would buy things marketed to me on their site, as most of the ad units on their site are bought through a network, and are therefore geo-targeted (I get New York-centric ads served to me on their site). Instead, they want me to move to the eEdition, where none of the ads that appear *are* targeted to me.

    The main problem here is not with my situation; it’s more that most of the A18-34 audience – 30% of the Projo’s web audience – aren’t going to buy a newspaper, period. But they probably would buy access behind a paywall if it was priced reasonably. They won’t buy it, though, in the clunky, eEdition format that the Projo is offering.

    The younger audience that could comprise their future readership doesn’t want to read their news in a newspaper-like format. They’re never going to, either. Their habits are ingrained, and only offering the content in that format will alienate them. It certainly alienated me.

    What I’m suggesting isn’t to move to a web-heavy strategy. I don’t think that’s the right move, either, and you make good points about their place in the market right now. But what the Projo did is actually make their online presence *worse* than what it’s been for the last ten years, and then put it behind a paywall. I don’t think they even realize that: the eEdition is not a substitute for what the Journal offered online before. They’re actually asking their readers to pay to get less content and less access online than they previously received online for free.

    Nobody else has tried that and succeeded. No paywall I know of has actually stripped out components of a web site before instituting a paywall. Nor would I think that would succeed. I couldn’t even think of a precedent for this kind of move (nor – when asked – could one of their editors). Can you?

    I suspect what’s going on here, honestly, is part of the old mindset. One of their editors told me that their strategy here was simply, “newspaper stories are online in the eEdition.” In other words, they’re segregating print content on a completely different site. I suspect the reason they’re doing that is because they place a certain value on their newspaper content – and understandably so. But why would they pull it off the web entirely and put it in the eEdition? It’s not *that* precious a commodity. They could have just as easily placed it in a web format behind a paywall – *and* they could still serve ads in that web format, which would generate additional revenue.

    The most infurating thing, though, in that exchange with an editor about the limitations of the eEdition, was the suggestion that, “you might take a look at it on an iPad. You might like it better.” It was suggested so casually, as though everyone owns an iPad (less than 10% US penetration), and it completely ignores my main point that many people have adapted to read news content in something other than a newspaper-like format. That’s just sheer ignorance, and it suggests an air of arrogance in this relaunch.

  12. @Mike: One other thought: given that the Projo’s core audience continues to age, a large number must stop their subscriptions during the winter when they spend it in Florida. Especially in colder months, I must be far from the only one who lives outside the market and visits their website.

  13. Mike Benedict

    @Chris: Good points. I don’t really have an answer for you, and I’ve spent precious little time on the ProJo site during the past several years.

    It is hard to find an easygoing editor though. It’s like they all saw “All The President’s Men” and decided if they couldn’t match Ben Bradlee’s wisdom, they could at least imitate his demeanor.

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