When The Washington Post announced in mid-March that it would provide free digital access to subscribers of a half-dozen local papers around the country, the consensus take was clear: After years of hesitation, the Post, under Jeff Bezos, was finally looking to “go national” in a big way.
The project is indeed important for the Post. But if it pans out, it could be pretty significant for those local papers, too, by offering one way to put a high-quality local-national news bundle back together—though not everyone involved would describe the partnership in quite those terms.
Under the arrangement, subscribers of six papers—The Dallas Morning News, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, and The Blade of Toledo, OH—will get digital-subscriber access to the Post’s website and apps once the pilot program launches in May. The local papers get an extra benefit to offer subscribers; the Post gets greater national reach, a local marketing boost, and a chance to build relationships with people who are already devoted news readers. No money changes hands.
“The beauty of the program is the simplicity of the program,” said Hugh McGarry, senior vice president of audience and marketing for the Journal Sentinel.
After the Post approached local papers with the idea early this year, “a very, very high percentage” opted in, said Steve Hills, the Post’s president and general manager. Under the initial agreement, a local print subscriber will get 12 months of Post digital access after taking advantage of the offer, but “our hope is that this program will last for many years,” Hills said. The Post is in the process of lining up more local partners.
The Post introduced a metered paywall that allows online readers to view up to 20 articles per month in July 2013. Currently, a 12-month subscription for unlimited web access costs $99; add tablet and smartphone apps, and the price goes to $149 (though Nieman Lab notes the digital premium subscription was recently available at a bargain-basement $39 annually). Local papers that join the program won’t be allowed to charge an additional fee to subscribers who access Post digital content.
The offer is “intended for print subscribers [of local papers] only—not for digital,” Hills said. There are “some edge cases,” he added, but the deal is designed to make Post content available to people who pay a premium price for news—so people in the continental US who sign up for a $15 digital-only subscription to the Star-Advertiser won’t qualify.
For the Post, the new program is “a bigger bet” on the paper’s ability to attract a larger, engaged national audience while it also remains focused on its local market, said Hills. And while the arrangement will presumably make it a bit harder for the paper to sell web subscriptions in, say, Dallas or Minneapolis, he said the program can co-exist with the Post’s efforts to build its own digital subscriber base. “One of the things that has hurt the industry is an excessive fear of cannibalization,” Hills said.
“We think it’s a great fit for the industry, because so many papers have decided the key differentiation they have is local,” he added. From the Post’s perspective, a side benefit of the deal is that it adds another incentive to subscribe to local papers, he added. For those papers, “it’s allowing them to create a new bundle” while also fitting with the Post’s objectives, said Hills.
Executives at several of the local partner papers were enthusiastic about the program, especially as a way to help retain existing subscribers, and some described it in similar terms.
“It definitely has value for folks wanting news out of Washington, which the folks at The Washington Post are very good at reporting. And they also are very good with arts and things like that,” said Dick Fuller, director of circulation for The Blade.
“Most publications currently bundle digital copy with print copy of their own product. This is a bit unique,” Fuller said, because it brings together different publications with different strengths.
Others chose a different frame. Jim Moroney, publisher and CEO of the Morning News, agreed the program is a way of “adding value for our subscribers.” But he said it was better understood as a subscriber perk, like State Fair tickets or live-event access, than as a strategic response to the “unbundling” of news.
The Dallas paper hasn’t started marketing the program in earnest yet, and doesn’t have a clear handle on how many subscribers will be interested. “My guess is it’s less than 10 percent uptake,” Moroney said—though he noted that if the Post can do that all over the country, it will have gained a substantial devoted national readership. (The Post hasn’t made public its goals for participation by local subscribers.)
Both McGarry of the Journal Sentinel and Fuller of The Blade compared the arrangement to the role local papers have long had in printing and distributing national publications in their market. “We actually are distributing all of the national print editions” in the Milwaukee area, said McGarry. “It makes sense for us to expand distribution to the digital realm.”
That is in some ways an unusual analogy—part of the promise (and, for newspapers, the peril) of the Internet has always been that it makes distributors irrelevant. But the readers in local markets who seem most likely to value the Post digital subscription are the ones who already subscribe to a national paper—or papers. “We drop off Blade subscriptions and maybe drop three or four different products at these houses,” said Fuller. “National subscribers in our market tend to read all of them.”
If the Post/local partnership takes hold, one of the effects could be that, if those hardcore readers get more selective as subscription rates continue to rise across the industry, they’re more likely to stick with the local paper. If you live in northwest Ohio, value national news, and are going to subscribe to one paper, you might choose The New York Times, and take what local news you can get online before hitting The Blade’s own digital paywall. But if you can get The Blade and the Post as a package deal for a comparable price, that option starts to look more appealing—especially if the Post, under Bezos, continues to invest in its own newsroom.
“Like every market, we’re charging a lot more for subscriptions, and anything we can do that adds more to the subscription pie is a good thing,” said Fuller. “This will hopefully add to the retention of subscribers as we charge more and more in annual subscription rates.” (A new year-long print subscription to The Blade currently costs $182—almost exactly the same as 52 weeks of unlimited access to NYTimes.com.)
That’s speculative, and it depends on the terms of the deal not changing much. There are other speculative scenarios in which the outcome here looks less rosy for local papers. But if this does turn out to be a real “win-win,” it could bolster the local papers’ bottom line and support an editorial focus on local news. That would be a big deal—almost as big as the Post finally going national.
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