Like most publishers, Stephens Media Group of Las Vegas - owner of several Arkansas newspapers - is considering charging for online content. To test the option the company will soon implement a pay model at the Pine Bluff Commercial, Sherman Frederick, Stephens' president, said last week.
The company hopes to roll out the new plan at www.pbcommercial.com by year's end. The lessons learned in Pine Bluff will likely transfer to other properties in the chain. The Stephens-owned Hot Springs Village Voice has successfully kept its content behind a paywall for some time. However, since the paper is in a retirement community populated by the newspaper industry's best customers - i.e. older folks - it's tough to generalize its success.
The Commercial's location is the key to it being Stephens' test site, Frederick said.
"If you have a competitor who is giving the news away for free, it is hard to experiment in that market," Frederick said. "If you are in an isolated market, you are pretty much given more room."
Pine Bluff, which has no other major news outlets, fits the criterion. Frederick considers most of Stephens' Arkansas markets as likely locations for a pay Internet model. (Most of the properties have no competitors, and others compete against newspapers that have already instituted a pay model.)
Since www.arkansasnews.com, which aggregates content from Stephens' central Arkansas weeklies and the Arkansas News Bureau, competes with Walter Hussman's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, it too could be a site for the paid-content model, Frederick said. The D-G's site, www.arkansasonline.com, has long been behind a paywall. The D-G's northwest edition's site, www.nwanews.com, went behind a paywall recently.
Stephens will upgrade the Commercial's existing site, which is so 20th century, before asking for payment of some sort, Frederick said.
"Once you start asking people to pay for something, it raises a number of issues about the level of sophistication of a site," Frederick said. "It is one thing to throw [content] up and another to organize it so people want to pay for it."
AmyJo Brown has been hired as online director and will manage all content on the site, Michael Hengel, the Commercial's publisher and editor, said. Brown was a crack reporter at the D-G, covering Pulaski County government, before falling victim to the paper's layoffs. (Full disclosure: Michael Hengel is the father of your Outtakes writer.)