Philadelphians have been told for months that after years of sharing Philly.com as the online dumping ground for both newspapers, 2013 would bring two things: 1) Individual websites for both papers, and 2) a paywall that requires users to pay for the content therein. On Thursday—seemingly by accident; both sites are still in “beta previews”—the websites emerged into public view, at Inquirer.com and PhillyDailyNews.com. Barring last-minute problems, the sites should officially launch on Monday.
Digital managers at the newspapers didn’t want to talk about the new websites on Thursday, saying they’d prefer to discuss the details closer to launch. That leaves us with a list of things we do know about the digital future of the newspaper—and a few we don’t.
• KNOWN: The new sites reflect the papers’ personalities: PhillyDailyNews.com greets you with a red banner, big pictures and short, loud headlines—as well as a strong emphasis on the newspaper’s columnists, featured on the site’s left-hand rail. It’s fun to look at.
Inquirer.com is more business-like, befitting its image as “paper of record.” There’s a muted blue banner, and a lot more pictures and headlines packed into the first view you have of the page. It’s not stuffy, exactly, but it’s much more sober and efficient about its delivery of the day’s news. The new sites are pretty much exactly what you’d expect and hope for from the respective organizations.
• UNKNOWN: How hard the paywall will be: As of Thursday, anyway, you could only see the front page of both sites. Users attempting to click on stories were asked to subscribe, or register for the site using their existing print accounts.
At this point, there are two types of online payways in use in the newspaper industry. A “hard” paywall means that non-paying users never get to see the paper’s online stories—you pay or you don’t, period. More common, though, is the “soft” or “metered” paywall—readers can see a certain number of stories per month, after which they’re asked to pay further. It’s the model in place at the New York Times, and it’s the reason you get to see a Times story when your friend links to it on Facebook, even if you’re not a subscriber.
Best guess? A soft paywall is coming.
• KNOWN: They still rather you would subscribe to the paper: It’s possible these numbers will change with the launch, but as of Thursday afternoon, it would cost $6.44 for a week of digital-only access to the Inquirer; that price drops to $2.50 a week if you simply agree to have the Sunday paper delivered in print. Same goes for the Daily News: Digital access is $6.07 a week, but drops to $2.50 if you have the Saturday paper delivered.
At first glance, that doesn’t make much sense. Doesn’t a digital-only subscription require fewer resources than printing and delivering a paper? Sure. But even in the burgeoning Digital Age, certain truths remain: Papers still make more from print advertising than they do for online advertising—by far. They can charge higher rates for those advertisements based on circulation. Thus, every print subscription carries a value beyond the paper itself—to the point that it’s more lucrative for the papers to practically give away their digital products if you’ll just buy the paper once a week. Someday, this model will surely collapse. Until then …
• UNKNOWN: Who will actually pay for mostly-digital subscriptions: Lots of Philadelphians will be happy to get their news, free, from other sources in town—independent websites, as well as outlets for local TV and radio stations. Many might prefer to stick with print. Expect to see small numbers of digital subscriptions at first; this is going to be a long-haul effort.
• KNOWN: The papers’ editors hate Philly.com commenters almost as much as you do. One thing about a paywall: It keeps the riff-raff out. The editors, it appears, are counting on that factor to keep the worst of Philly.com’s notoriously racist and misogynistic commenters off their own sites.
The evidence for this? A “Dear Readers” letter at Inquirer.com invites users to chat with editors, reporters and other contributors. Another option? “Talk with other Inquirer readers in lively, but respectful, comment sections.” (Emphasis added.) It’s not hard to guess who is omitted from that description.
• UNKNOWN: How Philly.com will change to accommodate the new sites: For parent company Interstate General to generate any revenue from the new sites, Philly.com will have to change. Right now, the vast majority of news and sports stories generated by the papers are available for free at Philly.com, which will soldier on in the new digital landscape. The opinion sections of the papers are hidden, as are most of the columnists, but nobody’s going to subscribe to the new sites just for editorials and columns. (The Times also tried this a few years ago. It failed.)
Philly.com has already started developing its own content, including regular contributions from a “sexologist,” as well as a column from Mark Segal of the Philadelphia Gay News. Best guess? It’ll be a site for those outside-the-mainstream points of view, continuing blogs from the newspapers, as well as a repository for very slim, brief versions of breaking news stories. In-depth stuff will be for paying customers only.
• UNKNOWN: Will this work? Nobody knows.
At other newspapers, the introduction of paywalls seems to have stopped the bleeding from years of circulation and advertising losses—though nobody wants to call it a cure-all. What can be said is this: After years of layoffs, despair, and, seemingly, no plan, the news sites and their pricing schemes seem to be a solid step into the future for Philadelphia’s battle-worn newspapers.
And if the pricing schemes stick with what we’ve seen this week, even better: $10 a month, each, for a subscription to some of the city’s best journalism? It’s a deal that can’t be beat. The pricing is right, and the time is surely now. Let’s hope it actually works.