The Star Tribune prepares a new paywall

The paid content era has arrived at the Star Tribune. Or rather, the paid content era is back.

For the first time in seven years, Startribune.com will wall off some content and charge for it. While the Strib hopes to someday erect a broader paywall, for now, this one will be smaller and purple. As in 2002, it will encompass Vikings coverage — one of the site’s big traffic drivers.

The splashy “Access Vikings” site remains free for now, but you can see hints of what’s to come. The word “premium” is in some URLs, and the words “free trial” on some pages.

Assistant managing editor for digital Terry Sauer says charging will begin “in a few weeks.” Pricing isn’t set, but Sauer characterizes the monthly fee as “the cost of a cup of coffee.” I got the sense the price will be higher than SA java, but lower than, say, a Double Caramel Macchiato.

No get-rich-quick scheme
While much of the regular Vikings coverage will remain free, Sauer says spiffs such as beat reporter chats, some columns, photo galleries and non-staff blogs will be behind the smaller-than-Williams-Paywall.

“We know we need to be affordable with this new product,” Sauer says. “It’s more important to build a larger premium community starting out than have a tiny one because of a high price tag. There’s no get-rich-quick scheme involved here. But we need to start somewhere with a pay model.

“We know diehard Viking fans can’t get enough information, but I think casual fans will find it a pretty good deal too.”

Will they? The Vikings 2002 experiment, “Purple Plus,” was a financial failure. Roughly 1,000 readers paid $30 a year to read beat writer Kevin Seifert’s weekly emailed commentary, Pat Borzi’s original stories, a weekly Leo Lewis live chat, Winter Park audio and video, photo galleries, fantasy football analysis and Vikings history features. That amounts to a $30,000 gross — not enough to pay for a rookie reporter.

Then-Startribune.com editor Ben Welter says that in large part, Purple Plus was done in by a truly horrid Vikings season. The team started out 0-4, sinking to 3-10 before winning their last three games. While that’s less likely to happen this year, it shows how phlegmatic Vikings fans can be.

In contrast, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Packers Insider is a long-running success. Back in ’02, approximately 12,000 Cheeseheads paid $35 a year, putting $420,000 in the Milwaukee paper’s pocket. The price is now $44.95. Though the Journal-Sentinel didn’t get back to me about its current subscriber count, it’s worth noting that the Strib’s Digital Media director, Jason Erdahl, worked there through the 2005 season.

What’s different now?
I asked Welter, now the Strib’s copy chief, whether he thought his paper’s new paywall would work.

“I can’t speak to any possible plan to charge for Vikings content this season. A few factors do point to improved chances of success for such a product,” he says. “The online staff is much better integrated with the Star Tribune newsroom than it was in 2002. The sports staff is contributing far more to Startribune.com in the form of blogs and chats. There’s wider understanding among readers that great content takes money to produce. And the Vikings are a better team than in 2002.

“Does that mean Vikings fans would pay to read Patrick Reusse dissect Brett Favre’s performance after a disappointing loss, or mix it up in live chat with Judd Zulgad after a last-second victory? The climate for a premium product has improved in seven years — but I’m not sure by how much.”

Welter also noted that “the hard lesson, widely understood in newspaper circles now, is that there are too many other free alternatives to almost all the content we produce — even when we enhance it with exclusive material.”

If anything, that’s more true today than in 2002. Seifert, for example, covers the Vikings and other NFC North teams for ESPN, which didn’t have such a position then. (However, some of his work is behind ESPN’s “Insider” paywall.) If anything, there’s more NFL coverage than ever before, and competitors such as the PiPress, KFAN.com, bloggers or even the Vikings themselves might try to exploit “free” — if they all don’t start charging, too.

While Strib beat guys Chip Scoggins and Zulgad give nice chat, I’m not sure if all but the absolutely most rabid Purple fans will pony up for that, some paywalled-off Souhan and Reusse columns, and cheerleader blogs.

Still, in a day when newspapers have to find money where they can, plucking dollars from sports is a logical place to start.

When do print payers benefit?
There’s one other risk the Strib runs: that print subscribers — some of whom already pay upwards of $200 a year — will get pissed off as online reproductions are walled off.

For example, when the Strib began withholding certain print stories from the web for several days, there was no way for print subscribers to see content they’d already paid for. Similarly, someone who’s already bought Reusse’s print column should probably be allowed to see it online as well.

For now, the Strib’s philosophy is that buying print gets you that and no more. Sauer indicates that in the long run, the ethos will change — although charging will have to increase, too.

“Print subscribers are certainly highly valued and I predict they’ll see substantial online benefits if we ever go to a full website pay model,” he says. “But the plan for the Vikings premium now is to have a minimal charge for those who want it. This is the first foray into premium since Purple Plus. We feel better situated with a superior Vikings product to give our readers a good reason to sign up.”

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 09/11/2009 - 10:06 am.

    They used to have the bulldog 2 for $2.22 in early 2000’s special (the early edition and the sunday bundled together) that was back when they had the tv schedule and and fewer cable users and internet users got their info that way. Perhaps they will try something similar but different this time. A lot of marketing for marginal gain.

  2. Submitted by Sam Bergman on 09/11/2009 - 10:29 am.

    Honestly, it’s about time. I use the Strib website every day, and I have no problem with paying a nominal fee for access. What I’m not willing to do is pay to have stories I’ve already read dropped on my doorstep in dead tree form every morning. They should do this for a lot more than just the Vikings coverage. There really isn’t a free online alternative to a great deal of what the Strib produces, so I can’t imagine they wouldn’t see profits in the long term…

  3. Submitted by Tim McNeill on 09/11/2009 - 10:31 am.

    They must be kidding!! I used to subscribe to the paper because, I got what I paid for. Today, I can read the same thing with complete updates to any story they print on their website. How about charge for on-line content that updates stories that print can not do? How about offer readers something that does not appear in the paper?? Examples would include: local city news (local papers are closing shop), city councel meetings, happenings in the city or town where people reside, lunch menus, highlights from students in a school system that win or achieve greatness. The on-line experince should enhance a papers presence. Then, charge for the worth while content, sell advertising to keep the price of admission tollerable, and hire people to deliver (create jobs) an experience that is social and relevant. As these papers (TV too) look for the magic model, they need to realize that we are forced to make financial decisions in a world where everyone wants to charge for something. Where does it begin, much-less end. I really think that when people sign-up and pay for internet service. those providers should kick-back money to those that provide news and entertainment as part of the service. And, make sure the search engines do search and only search. That would be much like how the cable and dish providers do it. The internet has been around for a long time now. Don’t you think someone would have figured this out by now?? If they don’t do this soon, things will worsen.

  4. Submitted by karl anderson on 09/11/2009 - 11:32 am.

    It is about time to implement the only viable option left to newspapers: Freemium.

    Want ‘event journalism’ like weather, news events, sport scores, etc? It is free.

    Want ‘investigative journalism’? You pay for it.

    This is the wave of the future. Drive up an audience (and I think the Stribs numbers are off the charts at 5.4 million plus), and then offer tidbits at cost to pay for it.

  5. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 09/11/2009 - 11:51 am.

    I believe that these are just experiments so that they can better judge what the whole paper will be worth when newspapers across the country abandon the free online content entirely.

    http://erikhare.wordpress.com/2009/09/11/digital-paperboy/

  6. Submitted by Matt Linngren on 09/11/2009 - 03:01 pm.

    Any chance they’ll move ALL the Vikings coverage behind the paywall so I don’t have to weed through the 14 Vikings stories on the home page to find the real news of the day???

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/11/2009 - 03:22 pm.

    The Strib asked me, a very long time subscriber, to pay for additional access to the website. I said no of course. Why should I pay for what I already pay for?

    I am sort of interested in the idea, that they are going to hold certain information about the Vikings hostage until I cough up an additional. But the problem with that is that all I am really interested in is the score, and the Star Tribune isn’t in a position to claim an exclusive with respect to that piece of information. As for what Brett Favre, may or may not have eaten for breakfast, by keeping that sort of information clutter outside of the main coverage, they are doing the rest of us a favor.

  8. Submitted by Ron Brochu on 09/11/2009 - 06:00 pm.

    It seems ironic that many fans will pay good money on alcoholic game beverages (gotta get a fine buzz) but feel it’s an insult to pay a cent on excellent team information.

    This reflects on modern priorities. Getting buzzed is more important that getting smart — in sports, politics, whatever. Get stupid, stay stupid and don’t spend a nickel to get smart. It’s killing America.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/12/2009 - 07:12 am.

    “It seems ironic that many fans will pay good money on alcoholic game beverages (gotta get a fine buzz) but feel it’s an insult to pay a cent on excellent team information.”

    When I buy a beer at a ball game, it stays bought. The vendor doesn’t come by a half an inning later to ask me for an additional fee. Newspapers have always worked on roughly the same principle, one they now seem to want to change.

    It should be interesting to see how Strib editors decide what to tell us, at what price level. Are they going to charge extra for scoops? But everyone has scoops, and other websites will always be spilling those beans. Will they charge us more for minutiae, the stuff only obsessed fans want to read? But if it wasn’t worth including in the sports pages, which take up an incredibly large portion of every edition of the paper, why is it worth searching out on the web.

    To quote the late and very great Yul Brynner, channeling Oscar Hamerstein, “It’a a puzzlement”.

  10. Submitted by Dick Novack on 09/12/2009 - 10:55 am.

    Free content and avid fan chat is only a Google or Twitter away. Even I now get that stuff on my phone. Like it or not, I see paid internet content, even at a penny a view, driving people away. The only successful model so far is click advertising.

    As example of paid failure – only 221 (of thousands/millions of MinnPost viewers Joel?) have dropped coins into poor David Brauer’s Braublog tin cup. $6 grand plus a philanthropic match?

    David would do better standing on a street corner. A couple times over the years, WCCO tracked street-corner people showing considerable numbers did better than many other citizens (and yes had mental and other issues too). The last time I saw it, the average was $80 per day. Double the then minimum wage. And few “worked” a full 8 hours – just rush hours (and lunch time if downtown.)

    Both David and Strib would do better to “hit the streets”.

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