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Aug. 27, 2015, 10:07 a.m.
Business Models

A Cincinnati TV station with a paywalled site is challenging the city’s leading daily newspaper

The E.W. Scripps–operated WCPO.com is moving in on Cincinnati.com’s turf, though both outlets ultimately see the competition as driving richer, deeper journalism for the city and the greater Cincinnati region.

In Cincinnati, all eyes — or, at the very least, the eyes of those in the local news broadcasting business — have been on WCPO, an E.W. Scripps-owned ABC affiliate television station that in January 2014 put up a hard paywall on its website WCPO.com. It is, at least according to Scripps, the first TV broadcaster in the U.S. to charge for some of its separate online reporting, and while many are trying to guess at the model’s success and whether it will be exported to other markets, Scripps hasn’t released numbers on signups.

Scripps’ chief digital officer Adam Symson has argued many times that there’s been an uptick in the quality and breadth of news coverage on WCPO.com, which he says in turn translates into better broadcast coverage. While the company isn’t releasing subscription numbers, Symson said they’ve met internal revenue goals. And the city’s Gannett-owned leading daily, the Cincinnati Enquirer, is certainly feeling the competition.

“The competition is real; there’s no question,” the Enquirer’s newsroom director Michael Kilian told me. “This may have become the digital equivalent of a two-newspaper town.”

Just from a traffic standpoint, it seems WCPO.com has indeed made itself into a serious rival. This April, Symson tweeted that WCPO.com had overtaken the Cincinnati.com sites for the first time in average unique views for the first quarter of the year, with an average 1,669,000 monthly uniques versus Cincinnati.com’s 1,621,000, according to comScore:

We asked comScore to provide a monthly breakdown of U.S. multiplatform (which includes mobile and app traffic) unique visitors for these top two-performing sites. (See update below; the Enquirer disputes this data.)

WCPO-Cincinnati-traffic-comscore-year

[Update, Aug. 31: We should also note that Cincinnati.com disputes the numbers that comScore initially provided to me, which were “media title” traffic metrics. Based on “custom entity” metrics, Cincinnati.com sites received 2,005,000 unique visitors in January 2015; 1,401,000 unique visitors in February 2015; and 2,015,000 visitors in March 2015. comScore defines “custom entity” as “custom-defined combinations of URLs made available at the request of comScore clients.” Jordan Kellogg, Cincinnati.com’s consumer experience director, said the company prefers custom entity numbers because they include traffic from sport coverage, whereas the media entity measurement does not.]

Cincinnati was thrown into the national spotlight after the shooting of Samuel DuBose by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing last month; the big uptick in traffic for both sites almost certainly represents local news gone national.

comScore numbers are widely-cited as the best indicators of any given website’s online audience size, though they aren’t perfect, and often provide much more conservative traffic estimates than internal measures would indicate.

Chris Graves, former managing editor for WCPO digital who joined the Enquirer last month as a columnist, says that while she does still consider metrics like traffic stats, she can’t really think of WCPO as a sole competitor anymore.

“The true competition is for my readers’ time in a really crowded space,” she said. “The people I’m writing for are now giving more time to Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and Snapchat.”

(WCPO’s current general manager for digital, Dave Peterson, redirected me to Symson.)

Cincinnati.com operates on a metered paywall, requiring readers to subscribe after 10 free stories a month. WCPO is keeping its more niche and enterprise offerings for subscribers only, while breaking news and weather stories are free to read. Stories on the WCPO website marked with a “+” symbol are available in full to subscribers, but non-subscribers can still read quite a few paragraphs before getting hit with the “Become a WCPO Insider” notice. The same goes for paywalled stories in the WCPO mobile app. As of the writing of this story, the Cincinnati.com paywall wasn’t in effect on its app, allowing access to all of its content for free, but that “will be changed and adjusted going forward,” according to the Enquirer’s senior news director Michael McCarter.

Since the first announcement about its paywall, WCPO has ironed out its Insiders membership plan, which normally costs $79.99 a year for unlimited access to all WCPO stories and discounts on events and at local businesses (half-off tickets to the University of Cincinnati Bearcats soccer games; buy-one-get-one-free burritos at Gold Star Chili). The membership also includes a digital premium subscription to stories from The Washington Post: last September, WCPO.com began partnering with the Post to deliver Insider members full access to Post digital content, in an attempt to further broaden its news offerings. At the moment, however, the cost of an annual subscription has dropped by $60 to just $19.99, as part of a “summer sale.”

At Cincinnati.com, full access comes to $10.83 a month and includes paper delivery, as part of a “back to school sale.” The Enquirer also has its own membership rewards program, Xtras!, serving up similar deals on events and products.

To the non-Cincinnati resident, it’s not obvious what’s missing if one doesn’t choose to become a WCPO Insider or an Enquirer subscriber. Both outlets often lead with the same big local news story (“Naked man blamed for chilling seven-car crash” versus “Witness: Fleeing naked man, crash ‘chilling’“) and offer up the usual weather and traffic information that’s critical to local audiences. Both sites have drilled down with longform investigative reporting. Ultimately, the competition will benefit Cincinnati area residents, management at both outlets have said.

“I feel great about the journalism that the city now has access to as a result of WCPO,” Symson told NetNewsCheck last month. “I think it’s safe to say that even our competitors at the Enquirer have upped their game. To me, it’s just a win-win when the complacency is shaken out of a marketplace.”

Scripps and the Enquirer were once intertwined in another way: under a joint operating agreement that published the Scripps-owned Cincinnati Post and Kentucky Post, but the JOA was not renewed after 2007, ending a nearly 30-year partnership.

In recent years, Scripps has seriously moved to bulk up its digital offerings. Prior to the WCPO.com paywall’s launch, the company made a big hiring push by bringing on 30 new people, most of whom would focus on digital. It was a hefty up-front investment, and Scripps is still hiring: as of the writing of this story, listings for an entertainment reporter and digital enterprise editor were posted. The company also recently acquired the podcasting and advertising company Midroll Media, another signal of its emphasis on digital.

Enquirer editors stressed that they too were looking to experiment “fearlessly and regularly” in digital, while continuing to focus on the paper’s mainstay, which is simply thorough local news reporting.

“They have people who can do data journalism, enterprise, and all sorts of video journalism, too, but without them, we would’ve been pursuing those things anyway,” McCarter said. “Our job is to be the best we can be, which means serving our readers with meaningful storytelling.”

Last year Scripps announced a merger with Journal Communications in which both companies spun off their newspapers under a single umbrella (the Journal Media Group) and merged their broadcast operations, making Scripps into, essentially, a TV company (it now runs 33 television stations in 24 markets).

Cincinnati is ranked 36th among U.S. local television markets. WTMJ-TV in that city is also a Scripps-owned station, and Scripps CEO Rich Boehne told the Milwaukee Business Journal last August that the WCPO.com experiment would serve as a template for other Scripps markets, including Milwaukee. But how soon other Scripps-owned stations might actually start adopting the WCPO model, either completely or in part, remains uncertain.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Cincinnati.com articles older than a week were behind a paywall. We regret the error.

Photo of downtown Cincinnati in 1949 by Michael G Smith used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 27, 2015, 10:07 a.m.
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