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Jan. 6, 2011, 2 p.m.

Dallas Morning News publisher on paywall plans: “This is a big risk”

In talking about the Dallas Morning News’ plans to begin charging for digital content next month, Jim Moroney is surprisingly candid about the decision and the economics of the industry. When the publisher of the News told his staff about the decision, he said they must be prepared to be ridiculed and vilified for putting their content behind a paywall.

“This is a big risk — I’m not confident we’re going to succeed,” Moroney told me. “But we’ve got to try something. We’ve got to try different things.”

Beginning February 15, the News will beginning charging for a majority of its content across its soon-to-be-redesigned website, its iPhone app, and a forthcoming iPad app. Print subscribers will get full access to everything for $33.95 a month, while those who eschew the paper can buy a subscription to the website and apps for $16.95. What’s unclear at the moment is how exactly the digital subscription will work given that Apple’s app store doesn’t allow for subscriptions (at least not yet, but that could be changing soon).

The move is not entirely a surprise given that other large metro papers, The New York Times and the Boston Globe, are developing paywalls. It’s also less of a surprise since A.H. Belo, parent company of the News, said in 2009 that it was considering switching some of its papers to paid sites. (A plan for the Providence Journal to go all-pay appears to have been changed or pushed back.)

What will readers have to pay for? Dallasnews.com exclusive reporting, for one thing, including its scoops on the biggest show around, Dallas Cowboys football. Free stuff will include breaking news, wire stories, obits, and blogs (which, curiously, could include sports coverage of the Cowboys).

Moroney is pragmatic about the paper going to a paid model. “It’s not an over-the-cliff strategy,” he said. “If this works, great, it’ll be fantastic. If it doesn’t, we can go back to providing access at a lower price or free.”

It’s an experimental approach that marks a shifted attitude toward paid content. In 2009, Moroney was one of several newspaper executives to testify at a Senate hearing on the future of newspapers. As he put it at the time, “If The Dallas Morning News today put up a paywall over its content, people would go to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.”

Now, though, as he sees it, the News and other papers have no choice but to change. “I don’t see impression-based advertising, the thing that paid bills for newspapers for so long, as supportable in the long run for a newspaper,” he said in our phone conversation. Moroney said he expects that pageviews will drop by half once the paywall is up, which is no small consideration given that the News has roughly 40 million pageviews a month. But even with growing pageviews and modest gains in online ad revenue in the industry, CPM prices are still low and ad inventory is up, Moroney said. And as he told Ken Doctor in a Newsonomics post last August, the days of newspapers living off the old “80/20” rule are long gone.

Over the last few years, the News has reined in its circulation from far-flung areas (sorry, readers in Arkansas and Oklahoma), cut back third party copy sales, and increased its home delivery price, all with the idea of turning the Dallas Morning News (in all of its forms) into a product that makes money off specific, targeted audiences — rather than one that makes money on volume, Moroney said.

What the paper hopes will make the difference is a tiered system of access, from individual apps to the digital-only bundle and the full-blown subscription. In debuting an iPad app, it made sense to make all the paper’s digital offerings paid, Moroney said — otherwise, why would someone pay for an app when they can access DallasNews.com on a smartphone or tablet’s web browser? That becomes especially true as more publishers build HTML5 sites that can offer an engaging app-esque experience. “You have a website you can access with a browser that has the same look and feel of an app. How can you expect people to pay for one,” he noted, and not the other?

In its research to prepare for the site, the News found that there was willingness to pay for access to the site or various apps. While, because of the relative newness of the iPad, Moroney said he takes the data with a grain of salt, it was still positive enough to encourage the paper to create a paid strategy for its digital products.

“I don’t think we can wait,” Moroney said. “The business has enough uncertainty around it.”

POSTED     Jan. 6, 2011, 2 p.m.
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