The Boston Globe announced on Thursday that it will split its web content into two separate entities: Boston.com will remain a free source of daily news, sports, weather and entertainment; BostonGlobe.com will launch next year as a new subscription site, with more in-depth stories, graphics and commentary from the daily print edition.
Here’s how the Globe’s press release describes the halves of this “two-brand strategy”:
[Boston.com] will enable individuals with common interests to share ideas and experiences, and provide a convenient means of buying a range of goods and services…. BostonGlobe.com will offer a bold, elegant format that approximates the feel of a newspaper or magazine and allows the best possible experience for reading the Globe’s high-quality journalism. A subscription to BostonGlobe.com will be included for free as part of a print subscription to The Boston Globe.
In other words, the Globe hopes to attract two different kinds of readers looking for two different experiences—providing the best of both worlds and trying to cash in on both ad revenue and subscriptions.
So what do people think about this?
Bostonist ends its post on the Globe’s announcement with, “Depending on your perspective, this is good or bad.” Okay! For a little more in depth analysis, we’ll have to turn to former CJR staffer Megan Garber, now at Nieman Lab, who points out that “The obvious drawback of a site-bifurcation is that it gives you yet another hungry beast to feed.” But there’s a benefit, as well, Garber continues: “The double-down’s other potential payoff? A killer app that is, literally, an app…. You could read the site bifurcation…as a stepping-stone strategy: a way to help the Globe navigate toward a more tablet-centric world.”
Ken Doctor, another regular contributor to Neiman Lab, writes on his Newsonomics site that the Globe’s website split is a sign of what we’ll see from a lot of other news outlets, as well:
So the Globe takes the strategy much in preparation, most unannounced, at many newspaper companies. Overall, it’s an effort that says this: We need two strong revenue legs going forward into the murky mostly-digital future. Online ads themselves won’t bring in enough revenue to sustain us. In a way, it’s a back-to-the-future business model: advertising + circulation. The old model, in the U.S., was that 80% of revenue came from ads, 20% from circulation, and that brought in 20%+ profit margins for decades. Now, though, papers have been limping along, both print legs under continuing assault. And online, they could only hop on that single leg of digital advertising. Other than the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, no newspaper site has gotten much direct reader revenue.
The idea, then, in Boston, is to rebuild, over time, that strong two-legged business.
Doctor calls it a “retention and switch” strategy: retain the non-paying, high-traffic audience in the short term, and then switch them to a digitized subscription-based audience in the long term. Whether it works will depend, of course, on what Globe content goes where, and whether this content can compete with a growing number of sources of free content elsewhere.
One of those competing sources is the Boston Phoenix, one of several alt-weeklies owned by Phoenix Media. Phoenix editor Carly Carioli posted on Thursday what was at once a celebration of Boston.com’s legacy and, post-paywall, its obituary.
It’s easy to take Boston.com for granted, but take it from someone who’s spent a lot of time analyzing what works and what doesn’t in online news: Boston.com is the single-best city-dot-com site in the country…. It got in early enough to grab the city-dot-com real estate, and then never lost sight of the online/community mission that sprung up around the journalism the Globe was creating.
I say all of this to lament what appears to be the end of Boston.com.
There will be endless parsing of the Globe’s decision to put a bunch of its journalism behind a paywall, and as everyone knows by now, intelligent people can disagree about whether these things are gonna make money or kill their publishers. Putting aside that argument, the most basic thing to understand is this: what made Boston.com such a great site was that it was both city-dot-com and a really great newspaper site — and that it is now headed for a vastly more conventional model by splitting those missions up.
Carioli, like many others, notes the is-it-really-a-coincidence coincidence of Dave Beard leaving his position as Boston.com’s editor, the very day before the web-split announcement. “I haven’t spoken to Beard, but it’s hard not to see his decision to take a job at The National Journal as a vote of no-confidence,” Carioli writes.
A week before the announcement, in anticipation of some type of new Globe paywall, Dan Kennedy of Media Nation wrote, “I predict, at best, very limited success—so limited that it may prove not worth doing.” After the announcement, he writes, “I’m skeptical, but I’m impressed.” After a Q&A with Globe publisher Christopher Mayer, Kennedy ends with these closing thoughts:
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?
The Globe isn’t the first news outlet to take a chance in answering that question, and it won’t be the last. But it is the first to try this particular two-fer strategy, and the rest of the industry will surely be watching closely to see what it looks like.