Reaping a temporary windfall

I'm cleaning out my office in prep for a move to Savannah, and finding stuff, as usual.

In the pile: A folder labeled "charging for content." And inside, printouts headlined "Web sites going free-to-fee," "Media General to charge for newspaper web sites; CEO calls free access 'dumb'," "Turning surfers into subscribers" and "If you post it, will they pay?"

The dates? 2000 and 2001.

So here we are nearly a dozen years later. In the interval there have been bitter battles between onliners and printies over charging for access. For all too long, it boiled down to absolutist declarations on both sides, uninformed charges of "original sin," warnings of doom, accusations that one side or the other was leading the way off a cliff.

This week we're launching an "All Access" program in Jacksonville. There's one well under way in Augusta. Other Morris markets, such as Savannah and Amarillo, are queued up.

This is happening across the industry with relatively little rancor and many indications of success.

What changed? The biggest change has been the widespread embrace of metered access, which is not a paywall. Meters offer a kinder, gentler approach that leaves casual users alone and targets heavy users for subscription signup pitches.

With the meter, there is no doom. Our reach has not been materially damaged. New users can sample our wares. Bloggers can link. Social links work as they should.

We began testing the metered-access concept nearly two years ago. The single loudest complaint from users? It's not "Why do you want me to pay for this?" It's "I'm already paying. You want me to pay twice?"

The All Access concept fixes that: if you're a print subscriber, you're a member, and you get it all. And more: member benefits including discounts from local businesses.

Or, if you want just the Web, or just the e-edition, or just the tablet/mobile stuff, those are separately available.

A lot of work has gone into the pricing and packaging of this, and it's work that could never happen in the bad old days of printies vs. onliners.

It's clear to all of us that digital is our growth card. It's clear that everything we do is temporary, that change is the only thing that's permanent. Nobody thinks charging readers is a silver-bullet solution for our business challenges.

Despite all the talk about downfall, the truth is that the newspaper industry still has a huge, loyal, habituated, paying audience. It is an asset that pure-play online competitors (and broadcasters) don't have. Moving ahead and returning to growth costs money. It would be foolish not to make the best use of that asset to leverage a leap to a digital future.

But we have to do exactly that: recognize it's a windfall, and make best user of it to build a future. This is the time to plant, not to harvest.