The Providence Journal makes its move

As The ProJo Turns
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 14, 2011

ProJoCover_main

The Providence Journal, in a wraparound on the front section of its September 13 issue, announced in bold print: WE'RE CHANGING.

What followed was a brief account of the new: a cleaner, toned down design of the print product; a new web site, providencejournal.com, soon to be unveiled; and a paperless eEdition that will be accessible via computer or iPad.

The announcement was not entirely forthcoming. It failed to note, for instance, that the arrival of the new web site means the erection of the ProJo's long-awaited "paywall."

The paper will still offer brief versions of its stories on the web site for free, newsroom sources say, but readers who don't subscribe to the print edition will have to pay for online access to full stories.

Still, the wraparound, if not entirely transparent, sends an unmistakable signal: the ProJo, slow to innovate in an era of sharp decline for daily newspapers, is making its move.

"I think it's a vital moment," says one newsroom source. "I think how it goes in the next few months is going to determine a lot."

The most pivotal gamble, no doubt, is the paywall. As I have written in this space recently, Rhode Island is a reasonably friendly environment for the experiment. The ProJo's competition is minimal, meaning readers will have little in the way of free, online alternatives to the paper.

And nationwide, the first paywalls have enjoyed moderate success in one of their primary aims: sending readers back to the print version of the paper, which is far more profitable.

But the web is still the future. And analysts say paywalls have not done much, to date, to generate more revenue online. There is little hope, moreover, that the situation will improve.

Advertising space on the web is abundant, holding prices down. And increasingly sophisticated microtargeting allows local retailers to appeal to Rhode Island customers on national web sites.

There is also the question of whether readers will be willing to pay for online access to a paper of diminished editorial quality — particularly if the new web site doesn't offer much in the way of added value.

Newsroom sources, who have seen providencejournal.com in a series of show-and-tells in the paper's fourth-floor Art Deco auditorium, say it is handsome — cleaner and easier to navigate than the jumbled projo.com.

But there is no indication, yet, that the site will come with a beefed up blogosphere, snappy videos of the sort offered up by the Washington Post's political junky Chris Cillizza, or nifty, interactive graphics like those that pop up on the Post's or Miami Herald's web site.

Of course, journalistic flourishes are not the only way to strengthen the bottom line. The paper, in a recent half-page ad, trumpeted its entry into the Groupon-style deals market.

The program isn't operational yet. But visitors to the paper's dealsinri.com site can pre-register for the service, which promises 50 to 90 percent off "dining, clothing, fitness, special events, and more."

Sharmin Attaran, a professor of marketing at Bryant University, says the entry is a smart move. And she notes that a newspaper, with its built-in advertising and marketing staff, should be able to hit the ground running.

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