Dallas Morning News creates premium digital subscriber experience


The Dallas Morning News unveiled a new website this week that it hopes will put it in the vanguard of new media trends.

Online readers will be able to view a radically different site – for a fee.

The pay wall that's been up since early 2011 barring some content to nonpaying readers will disappear. Dallasnews.com will remain one Web address but offer two displays: a free version and a premium version that will have the same content but will offer other features.

Jason Dyer, chief marketing officer for The News, acknowledged that the new site is a test to see if people will pay for a more visual experience. The price for the premium site starts at $11.96 a month but is included in the price of a print subscription.

Get used to it, media experts say. The entire industry is trying to find the right strategy to build digital readers as print circulation and advertisements continue to decline.

"Every news organization is experimenting or thinking about experimenting with some sort of way to get consumers to pay directly for content," said Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor for Digital First Media. "It'll be very interesting to see what happens."

Last week, The Washington Post launched Topicly, a visual news site that looks similar to The News' paid site. Newspapers are trying to bridge the gap between traditional print readers and online viewers. While daily circulation for U.S. newspapers declined 0.7 percent in March from a year earlier, average digital circulation rose 4 percentage points.

The News was the eighth-largest U.S. paper as of March, based on total average circulation of 697,717, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. It ranked No. 15 by digital circulation (from print and digital subscribers) of 66,164. The News declined to break out digital-only subscriptions.

Far fewer ads
Readers of the paid site will see an image-oriented, collage display with far fewer ads (Web pages maintained by third parties also may contain ads). Eventually, more personalization and a loyalty program will be added to the site.

The free site will look just like The News' current website with advertisements.

"What we're going to sell is experience," said Dyer, who joined the newspaper in January from Google. "I don't know if there's anything like it."

The design of The News' paid site aims to attract a new, younger online audience, Dyer said. Most of The News' subscribers are over 40, he said.

Reaction to the change was mixed.

The News' plan "is something of a disappointment," said Barry L. Lucas, senior vice president of research for Gabelli & Co. in New York. "It's the second or third go-round for the website."

The new tablet-like display "seems to be following today's trends for a more accessible, visual content," said Amy Eisman, director of media entrepreneurship and interactive journalism at American University and a former editor at Gannett Co. "It depends on the content."

Buttry agreed. "That will be the challenge: Can you create such an excellent digital experience that non-newspaper readers will pay for that content and the experience?" he said.

End of paywall
It used to be all about content and protecting that content. In the last five years, nearly half of all newspapers installed some type of paywall, but with varying degrees of success.

The New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and The Wall Street Journal have seen some paywall success, but others have struggled. The San Francisco Chronicle took down its paywall in August after launching it in March.

"The paywall solution hasn't worked," said Dyer of The News, whose current paywall restricts access to premium content. "The paywall didn't create a massive groundswell of [digital] subscribers."

Other newspapers, such as The Boston Globe, operate dual websites, but they use different website addresses with different content.

In addition to removing most ads for online users, removing the paywall enables The News to give advertisers access to "an even larger and engaged local audience," Dyer said.

Buttry, who is a paywall skeptic, is intrigued by the concept. "Most of it is about user experience, and advertising can be annoying," he said. "Is the lack of ads a value that people will pay for?"

Today, print ads account for less than half of all advertising, according to the Newspaper Association of America.

Total revenue at The News was flat for the April-to-June period from a year earlier, but digital revenue was up 30 percent. The newspaper increasingly has derived more of its revenue from new ventures, such as digital marketing, which don't rely on traditional print ads.

Consumer testing
The News began developing its new website in May and has been testing it with consumers since July, Dyer said.

"We have tested the site in many ways, including through live user experience tests and software-driven tests," he said. "The combination ... [gives] us confidence that the experience is a good one."

The News declined to disclose its research methodology or how much it has invested in the project.

The newspaper will continue developing digital features for paid subscribers after the launch. It plans to add more personalization, where the site suggests stories, videos or other items based on readers' history, and perks, such as access to gifts and event tickets.

The goal is not just to increase the number of visits to the site but to increase the time spent on the site and convert more free users to paid users. Dyer didn't have a conversion rate to disclose but said he'll look for "steady and consistent growth as a sign that the strategy is working."

"This is part of the experience – to figure it out," Dyer said. "The market will eventually tell us."

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