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March 24, 2016, 11:53 a.m.
Business Models
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Cincinnati TV station WCPO decides to declare (newspaper-style) war on the local daily

The Scripps–owned local ABC affiliate wants Cincinnatians to think of their city as a two-newspaper town — even if that means ruffling feathers along the way.

Is any press good press when it comes to an aggressive hashtag marketing campaign? WCPO — the Scripps-owned TV station in Cincinnati that turned heads a couple of years ago by staffing up and instituting a hard paywall on its website — is finding out as it embarks on its latest push to sign up subscribers for its Insider program: #dropthepaper.

The offer, launched on Monday, is compelling: For $10 the first year, Insider members can open up the digital paywall and WCPO’s various apps, get discounts at various businesses and to events in and around Cincinnati, get more direct access to WCPO reporters, and even score a Washington Post digital subscription (which normally goes for more than $10 by itself).

But it’s less the offer than the marketing that’s attracting attention. The “paper” WCPO’s campaign refers to, of course, is the Gannett-owned Cincinnati Enquirer. Enquirer reporters have reacted as you might expect at an open call to drop their news offering. A search of #dropthepaper on Twitter leads to almost exclusively to a stream of outrage, much of it coming from empathetic reporters from inside and outside Ohio:

Jim Romenesko posted about the campaign, and amidst angry reactions on Facebook to the “crassness” of the campaign, there were a few moderate voices, as well as some broader cries along the lines of “oh well, journalism is dead anyway.”

romenesko-facebook-wcpo-droppaper-screenshot

WCPO says it doesn’t see their attempts as pushing people towards a single news source, extending the line they’ve taken since the station began bulking up its digital reporting staff: that competitiveness is better for the readers. This sort of aggressive marketing campaign was more common in the era of local newspaper wars, and they argue that’s the way to view the competition in Cincinnati.

“Absolutely, I understand [the outrage], and I understand why they would have a reaction to this, but many of them aren’t part of our target audience — they’re print journalists from other markets, and I don’t know what’s going on at each of their specific markets,” WCPO’s general manager for digital Dave Peterson told me. “We are trying to speak to the local market. We are trying to present ourselves as a competitor, as an alternative. I know that the newspaper does see us as a competitor, and I know that newsmakers in town might see it that way, but the public here doesn’t see it that way.”

Perhaps in response to the pushback, WCPO.com’s editor-in-chief Mike Canan posted a piece detailing Insider’s content offerings this morning:

Most TV stations in a market of this size might have five to seven staff members focused primarily on the website. We have 35…Those journalists provide unique, interesting stories you can’t find anywhere else. Some of them are available to Insiders only. Others are available for everyone.

“In order for us to thrive and grow and achieve what we’re trying to do, we have to be seen as a two-newspaper town — we have to establish ourselves as a news and information leader, as the Enquirer has done,” Peterson added. “But we’re not just targeting print newspaper subscribers — that’s a shrinking audience. We’re targeting all news consumers in town who might still consider the paper the news provider that is leading the conversation or is setting the agenda, but might want something else.”

Scripps was, of course, a newspaper company for many years, but last year, it split/merged its newspapers into a separate company. That company has since been acquired by…Gannett, which owns the Enquirer.

How is the Enquirer reacting? “I’ve encouraged my staff to stay above it, and we’re not going to get into a mudslinging match,” Rick Green, president and publisher of the paper and regional president of Gannett Ohio told me this afternoon. “Our job first and foremost is to deliver high quality journalism that nobody else in town — and I will underscore that, nobody else in town — can pursue and deliver on a consistent basis. WCPO is a great little competitor, and I’m cognizant of them and I respect them, but I’m also proud that I’ve got the biggest and arguably the best staff in the greater Cincinnati region.”

Green said he felt the emphasis of the Twitter hubbub on the print aspect of the Enquirer was misplaced. “It’s laughable to think we’re only a paper. We’re a 24/7 news machine and we deliver content on every conceivable platform. Print just happens to be one of the vehicles,” he said. “It’s a transformational time in our industry, and everybody is scratching and clawing to figure out how to best serve our readers. As the Enquirer celebrates its 175th birthday in April, I will tell you, we’re not looking backwards.”

Peterson declined to share the total number of Insider subscribers WCPO has so far. WCPO has never publicly released numbers on the program, but has said it’s hit or exceeded internal revenue goals and has grown at what it considers a good pace. Insider membership pricing has fluctuated widely, and WCPO is still trying to figure out the right pricing after the introductory offers by talking to paying Insider members, conducting focus groups, and in general seeking out feedback from as many potential customers as they’re able, according to Peterson (“We still want to make sure people see the value of Insider at a value above $9.99 or $19.99”). The #dropthepaper campaign and the $10 membership price point came after several months of planning by WCPO leadership, its marketing team, digital marketing staff from Scripps and its creative agency.

“One of the things we wanted to do to tie this all together was to make an offer that the paper can’t make. And we don’t have to pay to print and deliver the paper, so that was part of our thinking — to go with this very low price point for a period,” Peterson said. “We’re not attacking journalism, we’re attacking the business model. I hope that the Cincinnati Enquirer is around for a long time, and I hope that we’re able to go head to head with them on things for a long time.”

Photo of newspaper vending machines by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 24, 2016, 11:53 a.m.
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