By Molly Hulsey
While newspapers around the world are increasingly turning to metered or subscription models to boost digital revenue, the Columbia Missourian has launched both a membership paid content strategy and a suite of new applications for the iPad, iPhone and Android tablets and smartphones.
While charging for content and offering a variety of ways for readers to consume it is hardly new, the Missourian’s membership approach is different. Editors worked with paid content strategy expert Guy Tasaka and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute to create the experimental pay model.
The Missourian decided to employ a strategy that allows readers to access any news story in the first 24 hours after it is published. After that 24-hour period, stories are archived and available only to users who become members at a rate of $5.95 per month.
"You can’t continue to give away content"
“We think it’s really low-cost,” said Missourian general manager Dan Potter. “I think all newspapers realize as much as you’d like to, you can’t continue to give away content. I think the public is also starting to understand, ‘Hey, if I value it enough and it’s priced fairly, it’s worth it.’ I’ve said from the beginning that we’ve got to have great content and market the heck out of it.”
While many newspapers utilize a metered pay model, allowing readers only a certain number of article views per month for free, Missourian marketing consultant Bryan Chester says there were several reasons the paper worked with Tasaka to create the 24-hour open window method.
“We did this hoping to keep our page view numbers up, because the people who are coming to our website every day will still be able to access all that daily information, but people who want to dig a little deeper and want to read stories that are older will then have to pay a premium for that content.”
Tasaka believes the business model is a good fit for the Missourian’s college-town market. He approached the Reynolds Journalism Institute with his experimental design, and his work with RJI eventually led to the Missourian partnership.
“I went to [RJI director of program development] Roger Gafke and said that we needed to perfect our model to find a manageable low-price, high-value meter for newspapers who couldn’t afford to do it another way,” Tasaka explained. “We created a package that we could take out to community papers in smaller markets.”
Creating the apps
While creating a sustainable revenue stream was important to the Missourian staff, the development of a suite of apps that enhances reader experience was just as essential. Tasaka and Potter tapped Nikhil Modi, CEO of Whiz Technologies, to create the digital applications. Tasaka and Modi’s Whiz Technologies had previously worked together on digital applications for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The Missourian applications were designed separately for each type of device, improving screen fit and tailoring the experience for the different ways readers use tablets and smartphones. Warhover worked with Tasaka to tweak some of the apps he had already designed to fit the Missourian’s goals.
“The phone apps give readers the ability to check for new content all the time,” said Warhover. “The tablet is a much more visual medium. We all know that it’s much more of a lean-back experience, and so the ease of navigation through the tablet version is far superior to what you get on our online version. The reviews we’ve gotten are really good in terms of the look, feel and ease of navigation.”
"We want to concentrate on some members-only content"
When readers subscribe to the Missourian’s monthly plan, access to content on all applications is automatically included. For Executive Editor Tom Warhover, an important part of providing quality content is continually working to improve those applications for readers.
“One of the things we want to do is concentrate on some members-only content; for instance, special e-books that you can download onto your app,” Warhover said. “Eventually, we want to get more robust with the ability to comment and read comments on the tablet and smartphone apps. Now is the time to figure out the content and how we can make it special for app readers.”
The Missourian is a ‘teaching laboratory’ for a large student staff who will be the next generation of journalists. Potter believes the new payment model and applications can also offer larger lessons for the journalism industry.
“I’d like us to be a lab for the industry, too, and while that’s not always possible in everything we do, it certainly is for this,” Potter said. “[Our model] is really different than what anybody else is doing in the digital world. We like to go down these streets and hope they’re not dead ends so we can, after some real testing… tell the industry, ‘This works, but don’t do this particular aspect of it or that because it really doesn’t work.’”
Under Chester’s guidance, the marketing department is employing traditional and guerrilla marketing techniques, as well as a significant push on social media, to drive traffic to the site and convert readers into members.
Through his work with The Memphis Commercial Appeal and, later, the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Tasaka created a model that compressed the rollout cycle from the usual 15 months to about 15 weeks.
“The faster you can cycle through, the better off you are,” Tasaka explained. “You’re able to evolve your strategy more quickly. That was the whole RJI experiment: launch quickly, prove your model, revise your strategy and product, and launch again. With this plan, you can do three cycles in one year.”
"Publishers want 20 percent of their revenue to be digital"
Founder of TasakaDigital in 2009, Tasaka recently was named vice president and chief digital officer of Calkins Media, a local media company with newspapers, television broadcasting and interactive properties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida and Alabama. He plans to launch applications similar to the Missourian’s with five of the company’s other properties over the next few months, and hopes to further tweak and improve their digital strategy.
“Most CEOs and publishers say they want 20 percent of their revenue to be digital within the next few years, and that’s just not right,” Tasaka said. “The goal should be to create a sustainable business model, and digital needs to be the revenue source carrying you forward. Twenty percent of [existing print] revenue isn’t going to keep the lights on.”
Managing revenue streams and adjusting to the ever-changing digital environment can be a daunting task, but Potter believes the strides the Missourian is making with Tasaka’s model will lead to long-term success for the paper.
“I was talking to a couple of guys in the industry the other day and they said how scary a time it is,” Potter said. “You know, it is, but it’s also a really exciting time for us. I think there will be some papers that go over the edge, but there will be some that look back in two or three years and see that curve upward in stability and sustainability, and say, ‘Yeah, that was a scary time, but look what we did. We evolved to a whole new level where we really are an information company serving people a variety of stuff every way they want to get it.’”