by Mark Hengel
Posted 7/20/2009 12:00 am
Updated 11 months ago
They've finally ended it. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is now locking down its Web site for northwest Arkansas, www.nwanews.com.
"We think ultimately it is in the best interest of the company to not be giving our content up there away for free," Paul Smith, the D-G's general manager, said.
The D-G has famously asked for subscriptions to www.arkansasonline.com, its central Arkansas site. However, competition in the great northwest from The Morning News has kept online competition going in the region.
The possibility that readers are choosing to read the daily paper for free online rather than pay for the print edition caused Walter E. Hussman, the Democrat-Gazette's owner, to decide to switch to the paid format about six weeks ago, Smith said. The Morning News, owned by Stephens Media Group of Las Vegas, might gain a temporary advantage, but the Wehco-owned property could no longer afford the free-vs.-paid experiment with online content, Smith said.
"We finally came to the point where we felt we had to make a move," Smith said.
Large dailies have seen revenue, especially ad revenue, decline sharply since the economy began sputtering last year. The Democrat-Gazette has aggressively cut costs since the beginning of the year, trimming staff, mandating furloughs for editorial employees and raising subscription rates.
The Internet policy is not companywide, though. The Wehco-owned Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee will continue its free site, but even that paper dabbled with the idea of charging readers a couple years ago, Smith said. Chattanooga will remain a "test" site for the company, Smith said.
And while Hussman has often been mocked for vociferously advocating the paid online mode, many other newspaper publishers are realizing that Internet revenue cannot support providing newspaper content free in the short term, Smith said. Many of the nation's top newspaper execs met this May in Chicago to discuss monetizing and protecting online content.
Many other publishers are "concluding now, that while [monetizing the Internet] might happen sometime in the future, they are not going to be able to generate enough revenue online to support news gathering," Smith said.
The Morning-News has had little time to consider how the D-G's decision will impact its Web site, www.nwaonline.com.
"At this point, we are just sitting back and taking a look," Morning-News Publisher Tom Stallbaumer said.
However, the D-G's change might enable northwest Arkansas to become one of the nation's first markets in which competing papers move content behind a firewall.
Stallbaumer was noncommittal about whether a firewall might be in the paper's future. The Morning-News is not yet considering a firewall, but it's an option.
"We are not at that point right now," he said. The paper has experience with the practice, though. "We have helped a couple of our weekly papers put most of their content behind firewalls."Stephens CEO Sherman Frederick was unavailable for comment about the company's broader Internet strategy.