To Free or Not to Free E-Newspapers

February 4, 2014

By Ken Blum  | Black Ink

That is the question for community newspapers when determining subscription prices for online editions.

The two most popular options are:

1. The online edition is free with any print subscription. Or, for the online edition only, the subscriber can pay a separate rate, usually the paper’s local print subscription price. This way, the out-of-area subscriber can receive the online edition-only for the low local print subscription rate instead of one of the pricier out-of-area print subscription rates

2. The online edition is available to print subscribers but for a surcharge on top of any of the print subscription rates. The typical surcharge is only about $5. Again, the online edition-only option is offered for the local print subscription rate.

I really don’t have a preference for either option 1 or 2. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Option one—all subscribers get free access to the online edition—creates a valuable premium to use to sell print subscriptions.

For example, “For one subscription rate you get both the print and online versions of the Bugle.”

Option 2—print subscribers pay a modest surcharge for access to the online edition—creates an additional source of revenue to support the e-edition and website. The charge creates a sense of value (albeit at a bargain) for this amenity.

You can’t go wrong with either choice, but keep the following in mind:

• Many papers offer free access to the online edition but don’t let their subscribers know about it.

The free access isn’t mentioned on subscription bills or in circulation promotion materials. The paper may run a house ad every now and then explaining the print subscription also includes online edition access, but for the most part the subscriber has to figure that out for herself.

So if you offer free access to the online edition for print subscribers, include an explanation about the service in all your renewal bills, circulation house ads, subscription rate information in the paper’s masthead and, of course, on the website.

Also include clear information about how to obtain a password for the e-edition.

• The best option for subscribers outside the market is e-edition only.

The subscriber receives the online edition immediately instead of waiting a week for postal delivery of the print edition. The newspaper benefits from savings on expensive out-of-area postage—the profit margin for an online only subscription charged at local print rate is far greater than the margin for a print copy mailed at an out-of-area print rate.

• Some publishers will disagree, but in my opinion the e-edition subscription should involve access to only a PDF or PDF-like duplicate of the print edition; not both the duplicate print or text versions of all the stories with pictures.

I go around and around about this issue with some Web techies, but here are my talking points against offering all the stories as straight text with accompanying pictures.

1. The fact is that 90 percent of a typical paid newspaper’s business is derived from the print product, and only 10 percent from a paper’s website or online edition. Maybe that will change sometime in the future as e-reader technology progresses. But print rules now, so it’s illogical to adopt any strategy that could cannibalize readership of the printed newspaper’s news and ads.

2. Anywhere from 70 percent to 80 percent of a paid newspaper’s revenue comes from advertising in print. Thus, it’s imperative to not hide advertising in the print product from readers, even if they access the paper’s news content electronically.

3. Frankly, website advertising in its current forms doesn’t hold a candle to the effectiveness of print advertising.

When is the last time you had an advertiser rave about the results he got from an ad placed on your website?

This is why I see so many papers sell beaucoup advertising on the paper’s website in an initial effort, and then the volume of ads fades into oblivion after contracts expire.

“The ad reps don’t push the Web advertising,” some argue.

But maybe they don’t push it simply because deep down inside they know it’s not a value for the client’s advertising dollar.

Website advertising is a worthy supplement to print advertising, but it’s sure as heck not a logical replacement for print advertising, not if getting results for the client is a priority.

Again, this could change in the future as technology speeds ahead. Maybe all hometown newspapers will be delivered electronically in the future.

Not now. It’s not there yet. Not close to it yet.

We need to keep current on e-trends. But in the now, in the today, to emphasize electronic options while de-emphasizing or making any move to the detriment of the core print product amounts to nothing but financial foolishness. © Ken Blum 2014


Ken Blum is the publisher of Butterfly Publications, an advising/speaking/publishing business dedicated to improving the profitability and quality of community newspapers. He puts out a monthly free e-mail newsletter titled Black Inklings. It features nuts and bolts ideas to improve revenue and profits at hometown papers. To subscribe to the newsletter or contact Ken, e-mail him at; or phone to 330-682-3416.

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