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Globe plans subscriber-only site

Boston.com stays free; new digital products coming

Publisher Christopher M. Mayer unveiled the Globe’s online plan. Publisher Christopher M. Mayer unveiled the Globe’s online plan.
By Robert Gavin
Globe Staff / October 1, 2010

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The Boston Globe next year will split its digital news brands into two distinct websites, keeping Boston.com free while establishing a subscription-only pay site, BostonGlobe.com, which will feature all the content produced by the newspaper’s journalists, publisher Christopher M. Mayer said yesterday.

The change, scheduled for the second half of 2011, is aimed at building an audience of paid subscribers online, a strategy that newspapers across the country increasingly are moving toward. With this approach, the company aims to maintain high traffic to Boston.com, one of the nation’s largest regional news sites and a site that generates revenue from advertising.

Boston.com will continue its focus on being a “one-stop source for all things Boston’’ that offers breaking news, sports, and weather from a variety of sources, as well as classified ads, social networking, and information about travel, restaurants, and entertainment, Globe officials said.

Boston.com's audience will have limited access to journalism that appears in the newspaper, but will have wide-ranging access to content the Globe’s newsroom produces throughout the day for the website.

BostonGlobe.com will contain all the stories and other content from the day’s paper as well as exclusive reports, in-depth news, analysis, commentary, photos and graphics, plus video and interactive features.

“Our research shows that Boston.com currently attracts several different types of users,’’ Mayer said. “Some are readers whose main interest is breaking news and things to do, while others want access to the entirety of The Boston Globe.

“These two distinct sites will allow us to serve both types of readers with maximum effectiveness, while continuing to provide advertisers the large engaged audience they have come to expect from Boston.com."

Subscribers to the Globe newspaper will have access to BostonGlobe.com as part of their subscription at no additional charge. The cost of a digital-only subscription has yet to be determined.

The paper is also developing a range of Globe-branded digital products for smartphones, tablets, and other devices.

“We want to deliver our content when people want it, where people want it, and how people want it,’’ Mayer said. “Two brands create exciting opportunities for us.’’

Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst at Outsell Inc., a California market research firm, said the Globe is pursuing a distinct pay model that could allow it to “maintain very large audiences and continue to grow advertising online, and, at the same time, develop a reader revenue stream.’’

Doctor estimated that about 10 percent of Boston.com users might be willing to pay for Globe content online. Boston.com attracts an average of 5 million unique visitors a month, according to Nielsen NetRatings.

“They’re essentially trying to establish the two-legged business model they had in the print world — advertising and reader money,’’ Doctor said.

Newspapers are launching paid websites as they seek new sources of revenue in the face of dwindling print circulation and advertising.

While digital advertising is growing rapidly, it does not yet generate enough money to support the costs of extensive news-gathering operations. As a result, publishers across the United States have dramatically cut the size of newsroom staffs in recent years.

The Globe is the latest newspaper to announce or launch a pay system, although its “two brands’’ model appears to be the first of its kind. The Wall Street Journal, which has long charged for its online version, allows readers free access to a limited number of articles but requires a subscription for most content. Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper publisher, is experimenting with online pay systems at its papers in Tallahassee, Fla., Greenville, S.C., and St. George, Utah.

Meanwhile, The New York Times plans next year to adopt a so-called metered model in which users are allowed free access to NYTimes.com for a set number of articles per month, and charged once they exceed that number. Print subscribers would have free access to the site. The Times has yet to disclose additional details.

In Massachusetts, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, which, like the Globe, is owned by The New York Times Co., last month introduced its own metered model, giving print subscribers free unlimited access to the website but limiting nonsubscribers to 10 staff-produced articles a month. After that, they must pay $1 for a day’s access, or $14.95 a month.

The New Bedford Standard-Times has implemented a similar model for its website. The Boston Herald is also considering pay models, said spokeswoman Gwen Gage.

The Globe looked at a variety of models before settling on the two-brands approach, Mayer said. He said the paper was in a unique position since Boston.com, started 15 years ago, had established a separate brand identity, in addition to its affiliation with the Globe. Today, Boston.com is ranked by Nielsen NetRatings as the nation’s eighth-largest newspaper website.

In the Greater Boston market during August, the site attracted more than double the audience of its nearest competitor, BostonHerald.com, and, eight times as many visitors as the largest television news website, WHDH.com, according to Nielsen.

Market research, meanwhile, showed Boston.com attracts two distinct audiences: casual and occasional visitors interested in quickly scanning listings, classifieds, and specific articles; along with committed readers who immerse themselves in stories produced by Globe journalists for the newspaper. That second group, Mayer believes, will be willing to pay for more extensive stories and other information.

Some Globe content, such as breaking news and sports, will remain on Boston.com, but the precise mix has yet to be decided, Mayer said. Boston.com will also try to expand the ease and range of goods and services people can buy directly on the site. BostonGlobe.com, with the goal of creating a “lean-back experience’’ for readers, will have a simpler, newspaper-like design with less intrusive ads, he said.

At the same time, the two sites will allow advertisers to target different audiences, Mayer said. ‘If you want to expand market share,’’ he said, “you expand the product base.’’

As the Internet has developed and the advertising industry has changed, it’s become clear that advertising alone won’t be able to support newsgathering operations of newspapers, said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University.

“As we move ahead,’’ he said, “either readers are not going to care about the news, or if they do care about it, they’re going to have to pick up a larger share of the cost of journalism.’’

The Globe, like many other newspapers, has struggled in recent years as more readers and advertisers have moved from print to online. Last year, with the national recession accelerating the decline in ad revenues and the Globe losing millions of dollars, the Times Co. threatened to close the paper unless unions agreed to deep concessions, which they eventually accepted. Compensation for Globe managers was also reduced.

Since then, the financial situation has stabilized. Ultimately, said Mayer, the goal of the Globe’s pay system is to support a news operation that has won 20 Pulitzer Prizes. “Our objective is to continue to provide quality journalism,’’ he said.

Robert Gavin can be reached at rgavin@globe.com.