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Globe starts far-ranging paid website for all devices

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / September 12, 2011

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The Boston Globe today launches a new subscription-only website, BostonGlobe.com, betting that readers will be willing to pay for an online product that offers an innovative, inviting reading experience that is the only gateway to all of the Globe’s journalism.

BostonGlobe.com will combine the newspaper’s print stories with breaking news on a site designed for customers who want premium content they can read on multiple devices, from computers to tablets to smartphones.

For the rest of September, BostonGlobe.com will be free, but after that readers will have to pay $3.99 a week for a digital-only subscription. Home delivery subscribers will not have to pay extra for the site but will need to register online to gain access.

The newspaper’s existing site, Boston.com, will remain free and will offer breaking news, blogs, photo galleries, sports coverage, and a limited selection of stories from the paper.

Other major newspapers have also started to charge for online content as readers and advertisers continue migrating to the Internet, cutting into the print revenue that pays for a large percentage of newsgathering operations. Particularly notable has been The New York Times, which requires a subscription to gain access to more than 20 stories per month.

The strategy at the Globe, which is owned by The New York Times Co., is unique because the paper has decided to split its news brands - Boston.com and The Boston Globe - into two distinct websites.

“We’ve never had The Boston Globe have its own front door in the digital space,’’ said Globe publisher Christopher M. Mayer. “It’s always been integrated with Boston.com. This was an opportunity to build something brand-new and to have it front and center and really do justice to the brand promise The Boston Globe offers to its readers.’’

The Globe launched Boston.com in 1995, making it among the first US newspapers to launch a website, as it sought to offer news and information in a region with a high concentration of tech-savvy readers. Boston.com today has 6.2 million unique monthly visitors, making it by far the largest media site in New England and among the most visited newspaper sites in the nation.

BostonGlobe.com represents an effort to markedly improve the online reading experience by creating a digital product tailored to consumer tastes being shaped by iPads and smartphones, which make information easily accessible anywhere.

Globe executives said they divided the company’s Web presence to cater to different groups of readers.

Boston.com is envisioned as being attractive to readers who consume news more quickly and casually, want access to a broad array of information and services, and might be unwilling to pay.

BostonGlobe.com is designed to appeal to users who prefer a deeper reading experience and the full scope of the Globe’s journalism, including exclusive reports, in-depth analyses, and a range of commentary.

The company expects that many readers will use both sites.

BostonGlobe.com is essentially purely journalistic, and Boston.com is more of a town square where you get news and information, but you can also buy tickets to events and exchange information and opinions with your neighbors,’’ said Globe Editor Martin Baron.

The stories and advertising content on the sites will divide along those lines. Boston.com will have full daily sports coverage, online features and lifestyle information, as well as five stories selected daily from the print edition.

It will also offer summaries of stories that can only be read in full on BostonGlobe.com, similar to what The Wall Street Journal does with its subscription-based website. Boston.com is also in the process of adding two dozen new blogs, primarily related to business, consumers, and nightlife.

As a free site, Boston.com will remain ad-supported, and it will continue to be an outlet for a variety of digital advertising that currently appears there.

BostonGlobe.com is designed to combine the sensation of reading a print newspaper without the disruptions of online pop-up, pop-under, or page-takeover ads. It includes all of the daily news contained in the print edition, plus breaking news updates and a range of Web-only multimedia videos and photo presentations.

The site makes use of the latest Web technology, including what is known as “responsive Web design,’’ which automatically adjusts the page layout and overall presentation to fit any device being used. Many media organizations now must develop distinct approaches for different devices - separate apps for smartphones and tablets, along with a website for laptops and desktops.

The Globe’s approach is to develop a single website that, using responsive design and other technology, adapts to the device in use. On tablets and smartphones, BostonGlobe.com lets readers scroll through photographs with the swipe of a finger; on a desktop computer, a standard mouse would be used.

Readers will also have an option to save a copy of a story for offline reading later, whether on the same device or another.

While BostonGlobe.com will fit any screen size, the Globe is still exploring the creation of dedicated apps for iPads and smartphones. The company already has mobile apps for Boston.com and the Big Picture blog, among others.

“Our priority,’’ Mayer said, “was to make sure we launched BostonGlobe.com and that it was a terrific reading experience across all those devices. We are still looking at building out applications that are device-specific.’’

The Globe’s unusual dual-brand strategy will be closely watched in the media industry. Other newspapers that charge for online content have taken different approaches, each with its proponents and skeptics. The New York Times received enormous attention earlier this year when it introduced the “metered model,’’ where users are allowed to read a limited number of articles each month before being required to pay.

Another major newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, charges a monthly fee to view most staff-reported stories. The Wall Street Journal, a pioneer in charging for online news, allows free access to a limited number of articles but requires a subscription to access most other content. As with many other sites, including the Journal’s and the Times’s, BostonGlobe.com will allow stories to be seen via links on blogs, social media, and e-mail.

“The notion of doing it with two sites is fairly different,’’ said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists. “It reflects that Boston.com is long established and has developed a substantial audience with some valued advertising relationships. That makes it enough of a good thing that you may not want to abolish it or put it behind a pay wall.’’

Newspaper executives have long feared that charging for online content would lead to sharp drops in Web visitors and paper subscriptions. But so far readership has not dropped as much as expected at large outlets. At The Dallas Morning News, editors anticipated a 40 percent drop in Web traffic due to its pay wall, but the paper’s publisher said page views and visitation are down about 20 percent. The New York Times had about 224,000 paid digital subscribers at the end of the second quarter, plus an additional 100,000 digital subscriptions funded by the Ford Motor Corp. as part of a promotion.

Executives reported an increase in home-delivery orders following the launch of its pay model.

The Globe is starting a multimedia campaign today to market BostonGlobe.com that will include broadcast and traditional print media, along with outdoor advertisements.

As part of the launch, Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC will sponsor free access to the site for the remainder of the month.

The advent of the Globe’s pay model comes at a shaky economic time when consumers are cutting discretionary spending. But Baron said consumers have displayed a willingness to pay for previously free information that they value, such as paying for iPhone and iPad apps, and previously for cable channels when broadcast TV had long been free.

“Our research shows that people who go to Boston.com to read the Globe understand that journalism costs money,’’ Baron said. “They understand that what we do has value, and that it needs to be paid for.’’

Like all media outlets, the Globe has struggled financially in recent years due to its shrinking print audience and advertising revenue, combined with increasing prices of newsprint and a slow economy.

In 2009, the Globe’s parent, the Times Co., threatened to shutter the Globe unless it extracted $20 million in cost savings from its unions.

The Globe’s finances have since improved significantly as a result of the deep union concessions, a major increase in the price of a Globe subscription, consolidation of printing facilities, and improvement in the national and regional economies.

Mayer, the Globe’s publisher, said the company has been able to hire new employees to help design and develop BostonGlobe.com, as well as to buy a new content management system that allows for more efficient publishing in a multimedia environment that includes mobile devices, websites, and the newspaper.

“The strategy is not, as some might mistake it to be, just to launch BostonGlobe.com,’’ he said.

“If that was our strategy, then after today we wouldn’t have a strategy anymore because we would have done it. Our strategy is to focus on delivering products using the multiple brands we have to reach those audiences with products that exceed their expectations.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.