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Sept. 12, 2011, 2:52 a.m.

Will BostonGlobe.com give papers a blueprint to avoid Apple’s 30% cut?

Getting online readers to pay for news is a challenge, but the new BostonGlobe.com offers hope for newspapers that want to create an app-like experience but control their own distribution.

Editor’s Note: When it became clear that The Boston Globe was getting ready to launch its new paywalled website, BostonGlobe.com, one of our first thoughts was to wonder what Dan Kennedy — dean of the Boston media critics — thought of the new site and new strategy. Here he takes a look from an app-centric point of view.

Can The Boston Globe cut Apple out of the action?

The debut of the Globe’s online subscription model represents an ambitious attempt to persuade people to pay for what they’ve grown accustomed to getting for free. Equally significant, though, is how the Globe intends to pursue that strategy. Rather than fork over 30 percent of its revenues for the privilege of being included in the iTunes Store, the Globe has found a way to route around the Cupertino toll booth altogether.

The key is that the app is written in HTML5, which makes it possible to publish a website offering a user experience similar to an iPad or iPhone app. Globe subscribers can simply point their browser to BostonGlobe.com, type in their username and password, and enter a site that looks very much like an app written for iOS.

Because of the flexibility offered by HTML5, the site automatically formats itself to any device — an iPad, an iPhone, a laptop or desktop computer, even a Kindle, which includes a rudimentary web browser. Thus the Globe has found a way to avoid paying Amazon as well, though it will continue to offer a separate Kindle version.

Globe publisher Chris Mayer looked like the cat who swallowed the canary when he put a not-quite-finished version through its paces during a recent show-and-tell in his office. He told me that the Globe might offer a separate app through iTunes at some point. But it’s hard to imagine why.

Newspaper executives and Apple have been at loggerheads over Apple’s insistence that it receive 30 percent of subscription revenue and keep valuable customer data to itself. Late last month, Apple booted the Financial Times’ app out of iTunes in retaliation for the FT’s pursuing an HTML5 strategy similar to the Globe’s. By contrast, The New York Times has been more low-key about its own HTML5 product, called Times Skimmer. No doubt folks at The New York Times Co., which owns the Globe, will be watching this very closely.

“Is it a silver bullet? I don’t think there is a silver bullet. I wouldn’t want to declare any one thing to be the revival of the industry,” says Globe editor Marty Baron. He added, though, that BostonGlobe.com was a “tremendous effort” that should “add to our revenues.”

All of this would be for naught, of course, if the Globe app proves to be slow or buggy, and I won’t be able to assess its performance until it’s been online for a few days. Based on what I saw in Mayer’s office, though, it looked promising. (I was also able to play with it last night after the site quietly went live.) It appeared to be a considerable advance over the painfully slow “Today’s Globe” section of Boston.com as well as more attractive and capable than GlobeReader, an Adobe Air-based paid app that’s been available for the past several years. Also unlike “Today’s Globe” and GlobeReader, the HTML5 app offers news updates throughout the day.

Mayer said GlobeReader would continue to be available since it’s the only product the Globe offers that downloads the entire paper. (The new app lets you save stories for offline reading, but one at a time.) But development would cease, he said, and it would eventually be phased out.

The satisfaction of sticking it to Apple and Amazon aside, what really matters is whether people will be willing to pay to read the Globe online. When Mayer announced a year ago that he intended to pursue a paid-content strategy, it was clear that he faced two challenges, one external, one internal.

The external challenge was simply that the Globe, though clearly the largest and most journalistically accomplished news organization in New England, was not alone. Executives at Boston television and radio stations, as well as the Boston Herald, will no doubt see opportunities in the Globe’s paid-content strategy. Perhaps the greatest threat comes from public radio station WBUR, whose free, high-quality website combines local reporting by its own reporters with national and international content from NPR.

The internal challenge is that the Globe’s free website, Boston.com, attracts some 6 million unique visitors a month, making it among the most successful newspaper sites in the country. The solution Mayer, Baron, and company hit upon was to continue offering a free Boston.com site alongside the paid BostonGlobe.com site.

“We’re saying that we can do both,” says Baron. “There are different kinds of readers and different products for each of those readers.”

The risk for the Globe is that many readers may find the free site sufficient for their purposes. Boston.com will include breaking news, most of the Globe’s sports coverage, up to five additional Globe stories a day and beefed-up content, including 20 new blogs. In addition, Globe subscribers will be able to share links to paid content with their non-subscribing friends on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and on blogs.

“We very much want to be a part of the social conversation,” Mayer says. “We’re not looking to create a barrier that’s solid.”

It could be that the paid app proves most attractive to people who have been thinking about dropping the print edition but who want to keep reading Globe every day. An online subscription will cost $3.99 a week after a free trial period expires on Sept. 30. But the app will come free with any print subscription, including Sundays-only, the same strategy being pursued by the Times. I wouldn’t be surprised if the principal effect of the paid-content model is to prop up circulation of the Sunday paper, by far the most advertising-laden edition of the week.

Another benefit of the paid BostonGlobe.com may be higher quality online comments. Both the free and the paid sites will allow readers to post comments without pre-screening, anonymously or pseudonymously if they choose. But since commenters on BostonGlobe.com will be registered, paying customers, Mayer and Baron say they expect discussions with more substance and less abuse.

“They know that we know who they are,” says Baron. “It’s likely to be a higher level of conversation.”

I wish the Globe would go the extra step of screening comments and do more to encourage its reporters to get involved in discussing their work with readers. (To their credit, some of them do just that — but on Twitter and Facebook, which may be better suited to such interactions. And story pages on BostonGlobe.com currently say “reporters and editors from the Globe [will be] joining in select conversations” on the site.) But the Globe moved in the opposite direction earlier this year when it outsourced how its comments are managed to a company in Winnipeg. Still, I agree with Baron that reading comments on the paid site is likely to prove less of a soul-sucking experience (my phrase, not his) than on the free site.

It’s an enormous gamble to think that people will pay for online news. There’s a strong case to be made that the news has always been free, and that customers have paid only for ancillary costs such as printing and distribution or, in the current era, computers, tablets, smartphones and Internet access.

And it was perfectly reasonable 15 years ago to imagine that newspapers could offer their content for free and support themselves entirely through advertising revenues. What no one anticipated was the way Craigslist, among other developments, would make that impossible.

The Globe’s paid-content strategy represents an intelligent, nuanced approach to easing people into paying for news. And if Mayer and his team have figured out a way not to share their hard-earned revenues with gatekeepers such as Apple and Amazon, then they will have truly performed a service for the news business — and for journalism.

I’m skeptical, but I wish them well.

Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on “Beat the Press,” a weekly media program on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). His blog, Media Nation, is online at www.dankennedy.net.

POSTED     Sept. 12, 2011, 2:52 a.m.
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