A Tale of Two (Online) Boston Globes

Boston Globe truck

While I’ve been visiting family in Boston for the last week, the timing worked out to overlap with an announcement from the in-town daily that it would be venturing into a pay model in the next year that includes two versions of its online property. While Boston.com will continue to publish some free, news-based stories; a new BostonGlobe.com will feature paid content from the paper that goes beyond anything that isn’t breaking or hyperlocal.

Essentially, it’s a freemium model, and that’s not exactly a bad idea for the future of the Globe’s livelihood. That is of course, depending on how it is to be used. It is quite likely that the Globe will leave things such as popular columnists behind the barrier, and that’s fine. Anyone can find out the traffic on 128 from a scan of headlines or Twitter. That’s observational news, and that exists in the free realm no matter what. But more in-depth reporting or columnists (those things that cost more to the bottom line, anyway), those can be hidden away.

The conflict at hand is how to treat paid subscribers. In the startup world of freemiums, once you become a paid VIP, the ads get stripped away and the features become more robust. But that doesn’t necessarily look to be what’s happening with the Globe, in fact, counting subscribers against ad inventory is one of the reasons newspapers are in the zone they are in right now. A note in the Nieman Lab story on the announcement mentions this potential change:

(BostonGlobe.com, for its part, will likely feature advertising, as well, though the specifics are as-yet undetermined.) Or, as Bob Powers, the Globe’s VP of Marketing and Communications, told me when I spoke with him this afternoon: On the new BostonGlobe.com, “we’ll look more to the consumers to fund the journalism.”

I could pick a fight with Brian McGrory, right now. I’m still bitter at him for a column about my alma mater last spring, and the columnist is incendiary again in this piece about why it’s time for the consumer to stop getting things for free. Just so you have it in your memory:

Free doesn’t begin to pay for the expensive journalism that’s produced here. Free doesn’t pay for reporters who keep public officials and major institutions honest, and expose them when they’re not. It doesn’t pay for the best critics in the country, as we have. It doesn’t pay for some of the best education reporters, the most attuned environment and public health reporters, sophisticated political reporters, tireless sports reporters, sharp financial reporters, and the restaurant critic who keeps chefs on their toes.

I’m not arguing that, as media consumers, we are entitled to that information. The people and journalists who uncover those stories work very hard and invest their time. The only thing is that it sounds like the consumers are to blame for the state of the industry, like we’re unappreciative. I don’t think that’s the case.

Back to the future, instead of this wonderful debate, because there is one thing that will need to be evaluated. Among those who are not currently Globe subscribers…what’s the incentive to runs out to register? Most will be satisfied with the free Boston.com, but if the Globe hopes to be successful, it’ll need a hand from The lesson may not be in journalistic media, but in technology shifts like satellite radio. The best thing that ever happened to XM and Sirius (other than merging and creating a single non-competitive platform – not a monopoly, because its competitors are traditional radio and portable, personal music) was partnerships with auto manufacturers who would install devices and offer subscription trials. Once people have it? 98 percent keep it.

The current print subscription will likely be linked to online access, a one-for-one. How do you get more? My first idea would involve partnerships with the dozens of universities in town. Work like a bank: give students access for free until they graduate, and then hook them in as paid subscribers after graduation. The Globe used to do this with print, offering discounts for in-dorm delivery. Why not go back to the new base and try to start over?

I actually like this idea, even in all my usual naysaying when it comes to paywalls. This is a logical separation, journalism versus observation. And it just may work, as long as there is a legitimate reward to becoming a subscriber.

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