PayDream Believers

So Hearst is the latest news organization to steer itself toward a pay route: it announced late last week that its sixteen papers—among them, the Houston Chronicle and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer—are planning “to hold back at least some content from their free Web sites.” The move comes as part of Hearst’s “100 Days of Change,” a program through which company executives think critically and strategically about newspaper industry standards, practices, and assumptions—particularly when it comes to business models.

To be clear, when Hearst talks about holding back free content, it isn’t talking, necessarily, about paywalls. What the company is proposing instead is monetizing the products associated with news, the commodities and platforms that facilitate news consumption—the print papers that older readers, in particular, still enjoy; a Kindle-like device for mobile news delivery—and that consumers may be willing to pay for. While keeping the news itself…free.

The memo announcing the plan—which addresses not merely the payment scheme, but also a broader strategy for community involvement, and thus for more rigorous reporting, in papers—was sent by Hearst president Steve Swartz and republished on the WSJ’s Digits blog. It’s thoughtful, thought-provoking, and worth reading in its entirety. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt:

We believe we must begin to provide greater differentiation between the content of our free Web sites and the content of our paid product, be that paid product read in print, on a digital device like Amazon’s Kindle, or online. This doesn’t mean we wall off our Web sites behind a paid barrier. Our sites must continue to be the superior and dominant free Web sites in their markets. This means they must offer the best in breaking news, staff and reader blogs, community databases and photo galleries. In fact, we need to expand the number of reporters, editors and photographers who are running a truly great blog, creating a rich dialogue of opinion and data sharing. We must do a far better job of reaching out to prominent citizens in our communities, those who already have a blog and those who don’t, and providing them a prominent platform to state their views. We must develop a rich network of correspondents to help us grow the deepest hyper-local community microsites in our markets. We must do a better job of linking to other great sources of content in our communities. And we must put staff resources behind building those channels of interest that have the greatest potential: those built around pro sports teams, moms and high school sports, to name a few. 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.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.