/ 3 September 2009

Pittsburgh paper launches online charging scheme

A newspaper in the former steel town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has taken a giant leap for the US news industry by starting to charge for some of the content it posts on its website.

With proprietors of many of the top US newspapers now actively considering charging for web content amid dire financial projections, the decision by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette marks one of the first examples of a general interest title to make the jump. Until now the rare examples of charging — notably the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times — have tended to be specialist financial publications.

The Post-Gazette, known locally simply as the PG, is the largest Pittsburgh newspaper, providing readers through its circulation of about 209 000 daily with the usual menu of local and national news, sports and features. It has for many years been in financial difficulties, and has come close to being put up for sale.

The new charging scheme has been branded PG+, and attempts to attract paying readers to its internet content by giving them the cachet of belonging to an exclusive club. It promises to give subscribers extra content they will not find on the newspaper’s website, as well as direct access through web chat conducted through the site to columnists and reporters, invitations to special events and offers and perks.

“We wanted to create an experience for members only that gives them an exclusive and more intimate interactive experience of all things Pittsburgh,” said the Post-Gazette president, Chris Chamberlain.

The company has pitched the scheme at $2,99 a month, or $35,88 a year, for which subscribers will be sent a membership card that gives access to all the additional features.

The success or otherwise of the payment plan will be closely watched by other US newspaper outlets as they deliberate over if and when to take the plunge into charging for web content. The obvious risk for any early attempt to do so is that readers will simply defect to other non-charging websites.

In the case of the Pittsburgh experiment, it hopes to minimise the risk of defections by assuring the readers of its free website that PG+ will consist entirely of new material not currently found on the site. “We are trying to avoid our various product offerings getting in the way of each other. We are adding to the brand rather than putting existing content behind a paywall,” Chamberlain said.

Pennsylvania papers have been among the hardest hit by the advertising slump and the move online. Both main titles in Philadelphia — the Inquirer and Daily News — are embroiled in bankruptcy proceedings.

The Post-Gazette has already been through a round of job cuts as well as changes in the health and other benefits of its staff in an attempt to improve its bottom line. Management will be hoping that PG+ offers a way ahead via a new income stream. – guardian.co.uk