Austin Gardner-Smith

The Future Of News for The Boston Globe is Conjoined Twins – 3 Outcomes

It has been a tough year for The Boston Globe

Last week’s announcement (more here) by the Boston Globe that they’d be splitting their news content across two properties, one of which would require a paid subscription, drew oodles of attention from the media industry. Though it’s certainly not the only attempt to resurrect the slumping newspaper business, the Globe’s strategy charts an unknown course in the new media landscape.

The plan, slated for rollout in the “second half of 2011,” will effectively split the Globe into two online brands. The current online iteration, Boston.com, will remain online with a more limited content base, while a new site, BostonGlobe.com, will host all the content produced by the newspaper’s staff and require a subscription to access. Prices for the subscriptions have not yet been announced.

In light of yesterday’s Future of News event, hosted by our crew here at BostInnovation and Pinyadda and part of FutureM, here are three theoretical scenarios the future might hold for the Globe and its two-brand strategy:

1) Tempered Success

If things go as the Globe hopes, traffic to the Boston.com domain will remain relatively stable, leaving advertising revenues for that property intact. As the editorial focus shifts more toward local communities and breaking news, increasing numbers of people will feel connected to the site, increasing community engagement, opening up new opportunities for local advertising, and increasing the amount of time people spend on the site. On the flip side, a small but dedicated customer base who appreciates more in-depth analysis and investigative reporting will slowly start to pony up for BostonGlobe.com content, along with another minority that simply must have their favorite columnist or reporter. The key to the success of this approach, in my opinion, is the Globe’s ability to provide content and services that create very significant differentiation between the two products. If a subscription to BostonGlobe.com gave me a visually appealing, ad-free reading experience and free access to a great mobile and iPad application, I’d at least have something to think about.

2) Stabilization

In the second best scenario, the change causes Boston.com’s traffic and subsequently, its ad revenue, to decline. Parts of this revenue decline are made up for by a small influx of paid subscriptions to BostonGlobe.com. The paper experiments repeatedly with a different mix of content on both properties, trying to get the subscription revenue gains to exactly offset the ad revenue declines. The result is a stabilization of revenue, but a dampening of user experience on both properties as the paper keeps turning knobs and dials trying to balance the equation. The major question in this scenario is whether or not the increased cost and resources of running two different destinations will ultimately add to the burden or product enough revenue to lessen it.

3) Continued Decline

In the nightmare scenario for the Globe, traffic to Boston.com drops sharply and BostonGlobe.com’s potential subscribers, uncertain about the value of the new destination, trickle in slowly and defect over time. The increased overhead of managing two domains and still continuing the print edition leads to a widening revenue gap that places still more pressure on an already shorthanded newsroom. Mobile experiences become victims of cost-cutting measures and overall readership continues to trend downwards as upstarts like Patch and independent bloggers take local news market share. If the outcome of the planned split is two independently good products that people like, this scenario can be avoided. But if the split produces two mediocre properties in place of the current one, the results could be dire.

Certainly, there are innumerable scenarios that could play out, and the ones above are meant to illustrate some broad reactions that could affect the Globe’s future. No matter what happens, the Globe deserves credit for its willingness to step outside the box and try something new. The company’s decision in 1995 to brand the online version separately has come full circle in 2010, and only time will tell if the attempt is successful.

For more on the Globe’s impending split, check out these great links:

Double, double: More on the Boston Globe’s new Two-Site Strategy – Nieman Lab

Boston.com’s New Strategies: Retention and Switch – Newsonomics

Make Like Boston.com and Split – Columbia Journalism Review

The Globe Mates With Itself – Bostonist

Beard leaves, paywall goes up: R.I.P. Boston.com, 1995-2010? – Boston Phoenix

Publisher Chis Mayer on the Globe’s new pay model – Media Nation

What are your thoughts on the Globe’s new model? Genius innovation, moderate improvement, doomed to failure? Leave a comment and let us know!

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