The precise details of the MediaNews plan have not been disclosed, but management revealed its broad outlines in a memo to staffers released two weeks after an executive conference on interactive media.
First, MediaNews said it will stop reproducing all its print content online, meaning that some stories will only appear in the newspapers. Second, online content will be crafted to reach a younger audience; and third, online users who are not subscribed to the print edition will be required to register and pay a fee to read stories online.
While they have managed to attract substantial online audiences, newspapers have failed to build online revenues to match, the MediaNews executives noted in their memo. As they explained, this is largely the result of excessive reliance on online classifieds, which have tanked in the face of competition from free services like Craigslist.
One of the main goals of MediaNews is "decoupling" online revenues from classifieds, requiring either more online advertising or subscription fees.
Describing the new strategy for monetizing content, the memo noted: "We are not trying to invent new premium products, but instead, tell our existing print readers that what they are buying has real value, and to our online audience (who don't buy the print edition), that if you want access to all online content, you are going to have to register, and/or pay... To be clear, the brand value proposition to the consumer is that the newspaper is a product, whether in print or online, which must be paid for."
A major revamp of strategy always carries risks. MediaNews conceded as much in outlining its new approach to Web sites, warning: "We must not alienate [the current audience] as we strive to expand our audience and attract younger people non-newspaper subscribers."
However, MediaNews did not address a potentially more serious question: Whether readers will balk at paying for something they're accustomed to getting for free. A number of analysts and pundits have asserted they will not. There are a few instances of newspapers that have been successful charging for content, including The Wall Street Journal.
But the WSJ is unique -- an authoritative source of financial news, with a narrower focus (and therefore greater expertise) in this area than other general news publications. Among the rest, national and international news has been commoditized; the same information can be obtained from a variety of different sources, including free sites like CNN.com and aggregators like Google and Yahoo. This reality leaves local news as the key selling point for most newspapers. It is unknown yet whether this is enough of a value proposition to persuade younger readers to pay for the information.