Saving the ProJo

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 28, 2012

Everyone has a stake in this fight. Everyone has a reason to a light a fire under management. Here, then, are a few modest proposals from a former ProJo reporter with more than a little affection for the paper.

First, the business model. Then, the journalism.


THE MODEL

Figuring out how to engage the web is, of course, the most important question facing the top brass at any metropolitan newspaper these days. And the ProJo is stumbling badly on that front.

While papers like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have embraced their local blogospheres — giving them real estate on their own sites — the Journal has long dismissed the Rhode Island web as a purveyor of rumor and mere opinion.

It is a remarkably narrow view. Imagine what a couple of sharply observed political blogs, another from RISD president and digital media rock star John Maeda, and a fourth from an obsessive Providence College basketball fan could do for the dreary providencejournal.com — all at no cost.

And that's just the baseline. ProJo management doesn't have to look far to glimpse the possibilities. In Connecticut, the New London Day is hosting popular contests in its web site and building a sophisticated database of readers that allows advertisers to better target their messages. The Boston Globe is experimenting with online radio and deploying college students to cover hyperlocal news through its "Your Town" portal.

Job one for the ProJo, though, has to be fixing its "pay wall," which the paper launched in February — requiring readers to pony up for on-line access to the bulk of its journalism.

That access, at present, comes in the form of a glorified pdf of the print product — a one-dimensional, digital replica of the daily paper that looks like it was designed to drive readers from the site. And in a way, it was.

ProJo management never talks to the press. Phone calls for this story went unreturned, as they always do. But the paper, by all indications, is less interested in building a digital audience than in forcing readers back to the more profitable paper-and-ink version of the product.

It is, in theory, a defensible short-term approach. But the early returns are bad. The paper recently reported that third-quarter circulation for the print edition was down 7 percent compared to a year ago — a rate of decline that's actually a bit worse than what prevailed before the pay wall went up.

And in the long term, shunning the web is no strategy at all. Indeed, it's hard to think of a better way to turn off the young readers who could make the Journal a sustainable enterprise.

The Globe provides the region's most striking contrast. It maintains a robust, well-trafficked, free web site at boston.com. And its paywall-protected journalism resides at bostonglobe.com, a clean, intuitive site named the world's best designed by the Society for News Design in the spring.

Casual readers, moreover, can stumble upon the occasional free bostonglobe.com article via a Google search or Facebook link. The same is true for the New York Times site, which employs a "metered" model offering readers a certain number of free articles per month before they have to sign up for the paid service.

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