AN OPEN LETTER TO THE MAIL TRIBUNE
Dear Mail Tribune:
Before we get started here, I need to make one thing clear: I like you. I think you’re a good newspaper. You’re an important resource to our community. I’ve worked alongside of several of your reporters and photographers and have found them to be hard working and professional people. I was also the subject of a story in your paper a few years ago and I thought I was treated very fairly. In short: I’d like you to stick around.
But with how you’re handling your transition to becoming a paid site, I’m genuinely concerned you won’t be with us much longer.
The concerns started when you first announced you would be putting most of the content on your website behind a paywall. Immediately, your site had ads informing readers about the change. But if you clicked on the ad, there was no information about pricing, and no way to actually sign up to start paying for access to the Mail Tribune site.
Once pricing information was available online, I learned the link on the ad was the least of your problems. The price for access to the website is $14.99 per month, the same price as a subscription to the print edition.
There’s a lot wrong with this, and it’s hard to know where to start, but let’s start with the price. Put bluntly, it’s too high. People aren’t going to pay the same for online access as print access. While I’m sympathetic to the fact that news costs money to gather and distribute, that’s not all you’re paying for when you buy a printed newspaper. You’re also paying for newsprint, printing costs, and a costly distribution network.
But online, the customer has already paid for the distribution in the form of a computer or phone, and access to some internet network. It doesn’t cost the same to put out an online newspaper, and people aren’t going to be willing to pay the same price.
Two examples come to mind in the music industry when they were facing similar issues. Back when Napster was revealing that people wanted to download music, the major labels started selling music online. They charged the exact same price for a digital download as they did for a physical CD. The plan failed miserably and only started working once Steve Jobs convinced the labels to start selling songs for 99 cents.
Compare that to what Radiohead did when they released “In Rainbows” in 2007. The band employed a novel “pay what you want” system for downloads where fans could pay as little as nothing for the album. I’ll skip to the end of the story and say Radiohead made more money off of “In Rainbows” than any of their other albums, but that’s actually not the point. (The point also isn’t that your paper should employ a “pay what you want” model, just in case you’re wondering.
Research found that most people paid between $5 and $10 for the album. When asked by journalists how they came up with the price, customers said they tried to figure out about how much the band would get in royalties on an album sale, then paid about that much. So here’s the point: people have a basic idea of what is fair and they don’t mind paying what they feel is a fair price. From an informal survey of people I know, a fair price for you is probably somewhere around the $5-$7 per month range.
What I suspect is that you priced the website at $14.99 per month to encourage people to simply subscribe to the print edition of the Mail Tribune. After all, online access comes free with a print subscription. I’m not familiar with the business model for newspapers, but I’ve a hunch that print advertising is still where the money is. So it looks like the plan may be to use the popular website to artificially pump up the print subscription numbers. In other words, to use the product people do want to convince people to keep buying the product they don’t want.
Evidence of the folly of this thinking can be found in my hometown of Rochester, New York. When digital photography was on the rise, Kodak was more concerned with preserving their margins on film (the product fewer customers wanted) than on establishing themselves as a leader in digital imaging (the product customers wanted). The result was the “Photo CD.” Customers were to take pictures on Kodak film, then turn it in for developing, then get their pictures back on a CD ROM. It was a dismal failure. Kodak’s stock traded at about $80 in 1995. Now you can pick up a share for about $5.
You’re probably hampered a bit, too, by your ownership. The very people who would be willing to pay $14.99 out of a sense of duty or liberal guilt or something also happen to be the types who resent writing a check to help prop up Rupert Murdoch’s empire. But in the grand scheme of things, that’s small potatoes.
The main point is, get that online price down to something in the $5-$7 range, because I think you’ve probably priced yourself out of the market. But while I’ve got your attention, here are some other suggestions of ways to do more with your online presence without spending much more money. On any given day, you’ve got way more reporters in the field than anyone else. Press that advantage and use it to expand your presence online and elsewhere in the community.
Get some video back up on the site. A few years ago, you were the first news outlet in the valley to put news video online. You even beat all the local TV stations to this goal by simply by sending your reporters out with camcorders and putting the raw footage on YouTube. If you want to get more fancy, you could even put out a short 10-minute newscast using rewritten stories from the paper. This valley is littered with unemployed broadcast journalists that could probably do this on a freelance basis.
Podcast. Another extremely low-cost way to repurpose your material. Slate Magazine set up a nice template for this. They started by simply having someone read a selection from the magazine each day, and then expanded their offerings to include roundtable discussions with their reporters on various subjects. In your case, you could produce a morning podcast featuring highlights of the local stories in the print edition… something to listen to instead of what passes for local news on the radio. Manpower needed for this is minimal, and server space (assuming you don’t already have it) can be obtained for about $10 per month.
Maybe, just maybe, it might be time to think about getting rid of the print edition altogether. Might be too soon just yet, but it’s certainly something to think about.
Like I said at the top, I like you and I want to see you survive. But behind your paywall, you seemed destined to fade into irrelevance. And if that happens, we all lose.