Monthly Archives: November 2012

Vacation-stops policy reflects new direction

I spoke this morning to the Oak Ridge Breakfast Rotary Club. It was a great group, very supportive of the News Sentinel and, especially, of Frank Munger, who covers the Oak Ridge scientific complex for us.
munger_ornl_skybox_t120.jpgOne concern was raised, however, and it is one I’ve been hearing a lot about. In recent weeks, the News Sentinel has stopped giving customers credit for “vacation stops.” Subscribers can have the newspapers delivered when they return from vacation, or they can donate them to schools. But their bills remain the same. As one email-writer put it: “I understand newspapers are hurting due to the Internet, but that is crazy.”
I’m sympathetic to the readers’ complaints. Newspapers — the only product that is still home-delivered — have for decades adjusted bills whenever customers called in and ordered delivery stopped while they went on vacation. Readers were paying for each paper that was delivered to their homes, just as, in the past, they paid for every bottle of milk that was brought. Now, however, we were asking that they pay, in effect, for newspaper service, just as they pay for cable TV service. It’s a radical adjustment.
We think the new model is fair because the printed edition no longer is the only way that newspaper content is delivered. Nowadays, the News Sentinel is available on websites, smartphones and tablets, giving readers many options to keep up with the news while at home or away. The problem is that access to those services is free to everyone, not just subscribers. So some subscribers feel it’s unfair to pay for newspaper service while on vacation, even if they do have access to the News Sentinel’s other products.
As I’ve mentioned before, sometime next year the News Sentinel will join the many newspapers selling subscriptions that bundle together print delivery and full access to digital products. Then it may not seem so “crazy” that the membership fee continues even when the reader is out of town.
In any event, as the newspaper relies more on subscription fees and less on advertising, we have to make sure we’re doing the best journalism we can, so that readers will find the work of Frank Munger and the rest of our newsroom is worth the price.

Judge protects IDs of online commenters

Our sister paper in Memphis, The Commercial Appeal, won a court fight on behalf of the folks who comment anonymously on newspaper websites.
Shelby County commissioners had tried to force the paper to disclose the names and email addresses of commenters critical of the merger of the Shelby County and Memphis school districts. The commissioners argued that the comments were being manipulated to undermine legislation that would allow suburbs to form their own school districts, thus escaping the merger.
The newspaper resisted, and U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays put the kibbosh on the fishing expedition. The information, he ruled, was unlikely to reveal such a plot and “not an appropriate subject of discovery.”

Sentinel moving toward digital subscriptions

Like many other newspapers across the country, the News Sentinel will begin charging for digital content sometime next year. The strategy was discussed by top executives of the E.W. Scripps Co., which owns the newspaper, during a recent conference with industry analysts.
The strategy, which likely will involve selling print-and-digital bundles as well as digital-only subscriptions, will begin rolling out at Scripps papers in early 2013, with all of the company’s newspapers charging for digital products by the third or fourth quarter of the year, according to Tim Stautberg, senior vice president and head of the newspaper division.
The timetable for the News Sentinel’s roll-out hasn’t been worked out yet. The newspaper has a growing suite of digital products including three websites (knoxnews.com, govolsxtra.com and knoxville.com), an electronic replica edition for web and iPad, and apps for iPhones and Android smartphones. Most recently, the newspaper launched an app designed especially for the iPad.
All those products are now being distributed for free, but Scripps CEO Rich Boehne says “greatly diminishing the valuable content we give away for free” is essential to improving the newspapers’ bottom line, according to a posting on CincyBizBlog. Scripps is based in Cincinnati, OH.
News&Tech, an industry publication, reports that more than 300 newspapers in America now charge for digital content, and hundreds more are expected to follow suit in the near future.
Stand by for updates. While some readers will grumble about the transition, charging for digital content is the best bet for sustaining the paper’s newsgathering operations in the face of declining advertising revenue.
We know, of course, that the strategy only will be successful if our content is compelling enough to make people want to subscribe. So over the next year, boosting the quality of our digital offerings will be a top priority.

GOP swipes News Sentinel video for ad

The Tennessee Republican Party ripped off one of our videos of candidate Gloria Johnson to create a TV commercial mocking her. The video was created when she interviewed with our Editorial Board in her race for state Senate against Becky Duncan Massey. Johnson, a Democrat, lost that contest but is now in a tight race with Republican Gary Loe for a state House seat.
gloria.jpgThe video is copyrighted, of course, as is all of our content. But the Fair Use Doctrine allows limited use of copyrighted material, and the law is especially permissive when it comes to political speech. Our corporate attorney thinks a “cease and desist” letter might be futile, and in any event, the election would be over before a fight could be brought to resolution.
The ploy, nonetheless, is particularly lame. Honorable campaigns have, in the past, asked permission to draw on content from the News Sentinel, and we have told them they are welcome to quote from what we publish but may not directly lift our material. My guess is that the GOP figured we wouldn’t OK the use of our video to deride a candidate, so why even ask.
It should be noted that the commercial includes the disclaimer that it was not approved by Loe. So he, presumably, is also a victim, tarred by association by his own party’s slimy tactics.