Paywalls Could Alter Face Of Tucson Media
For years, executives at Tucson’s sole daily newspaper, the Lee Enterprises-owned Arizona Daily Star, weren’t focused on how to keep the town’s sizeable cadre of snowbirds interested in the paper after those residents packed up for the summer and returned home.
That all changed following an experiment last year.
Before they left, snowbird readers who called to stop their print editions for a few months were invited to buy digital subscriptions instead.
About 7,500 seasonal residents signed up to read the Daily Star’s electronic edition online. About 4,300 of them paid between 25 cents and 99 cents per week for the online e-edition, while cable television provider Comcast Corp. covered subscription costs for the rest under a separate promotion.
Comcast’s incentive? Getting a top-of-the-page ad in that electronic edition — and being notified when people had returned to Tucson and restarted their print newspaper delivery so the cable company could also ask them to re-subscribe. “We benefit because they keep reading us,” said Mark Henschen, the newspaper’s VP of operations and circulation.
That’s not the only new approach that the newspaper is using to make digital inroads. To help ensure its online future, the Daily Star is building on the past.
In February, the paper began turning out a series of 99-cent per copy electronic books, compilations of real-life crime stories culled from its historical archives. The first three-book series, The Bad Girls of Arizona, detailed women who committed sensational murders in the 1920s and 1930s.
About 2,500 copies have been sold so far, said Bobbie Jo Buel, the paper’s editor. Recently the newspaper’s second ebook, Shootout at the OK Corral, hit the electronic stands.
“We more or less did it on a lark, I must admit,” Buel said. However, the popularity of ebooks convinced the paper to give their own unconventional project a shot.
“We didn’t really have expectations. It was more of a ‘let’s learn, let’s understand, let’s see if there is a business in this’ mentality,” she said. “We still don’t know the answer, but we are going to do a few more ebooks and try to get an understanding on whether there is money to be made in content from our archives.”
Media outfits across Tucson — a desert city of 1.1 million that’s nicknamed “The Old Pueblo” in a nod to its Indian-Spanish past — are experimenting with a variety of strategies to boost digital revenue. Their approaches include going all-out on social media, charging fees for digital subscriptions, spotlighting community bloggers and live streaming local television newscasts.
Industry analysts believe the region has robust digital media revenue opportunities. Nielsen, which measures the online world, ranks Tucson as the 70th largest television market in the nation.
While continuing to struggle with home foreclosures and a concentration of low-wage service sector jobs, the city continues to be a population draw, said Laura Shaw, spokeswoman for the Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities economic development agency.
The community has a reputation for attracting well-heeled and well-educated retirees, as well as vacationers, college students, members of military and engineers working in a plethora of technology jobs.
Education also plays a major role in the city’s economy, with the University of Arizona employing about 11,000. That puts the public university on par with guided missile manufacturer Raytheon, which has nearly 12,000 workers. The military is another major presence; about 8,000 people work at the city’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Last year, initiatives like the one underway at the Daily Star helped Tucson’s media pull in $76.3 million in online revenue, according to research firm BIA/Kelsey. In two years, that amount is expected to rise 66%, to $126.8 million, according to estimates from Mark Fratrik, VP at BIA/Kelsey.
Media consultant Borrell Associates predicts strong growth in online advertising, particularly the targeted display segment. That portion will rise to an estimated $42.6 million in 2016, up from just $5.5 million in 2011.
Video will also come on strong. While email advertising during the same 2011-2016 period will remain essentially flat at around $2.2 million, Borrell expects streaming video ads will gain popularity. Streaming video ads will rise to $13 million during the same five years, up nearly 72%, Borrell predicted.
Following a revenue strategy that’s steadily gaining traction in the U.S. newspaper industry, Tucson’s dominant online media presence, the Daily Star’s Azstarnet.com, will soon begin charging for access to online content. The site attracted 467,000 visitors in April, according to Internet marketing research company comScore.
The paper’s owner, Lee Enterprises, announced in March that all its papers “will have some sort of subscription model within the year, but we don’t know yet for us what that will be in Tucson,” Editor Bobbi Jo Buel said during an interview in April. “I’ve been spending a lot of time in the last couple of weeks talking to people who have paywalls and trying to understand what different approaches people are taking. At this point, I am still in research mode.”