Boston's Globe Lowers Paywall for City's Embrace

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The media was on full display Monday in the frantic scramble for reliable information about the terrible bomb attack on the streets of Boston.

Twitter and Facebook ( FB) provided anecdotes but traditional news outlets - newspapers and TV news, networks and cable - were sources of dependable information. Numbers of injured and dead were tossed around, but the hometown Boston Globe remained careful and accurate.

The Globe's Web site was initially overwhelmed by the surge in traffic but quickly recovered. Boston's largest newspaper took down its paywall soon after the traffic spike as the need for news, in some cases a desperate need, became more pressing. Shortly after the attacks on Monday, the Globe suspended the automatic registration requests that readers are required to fill out after reaching a certain number of page views. ( The New York Times did the same while The Wall Street Journal has allowed its Boston content to run for free.)

Clearly, this was an extraordinary event, and the need to inform the public far outweighed the company quest to offset declining advertising sales with online subscribers. The Globe started charging for online access in 2011.

For The Globe, and for newspapers generally, the popular rush to the local rag's Web site punctuated a theme publishers have been asserting for years: newspapers serve the public interest. Such pronouncements, though, have done little to prevent readers and advertisers from migrating elsewhere for their news and entertainment.

The Globe is going through an uncertain time. Its owner, The New York Times Company ( NYT), said in February that the newspaper is for sale and hired Evercore Partners to pursue a buyer. Apart from its proximity to New York, The Globe has never been a natural complement to the Times or its flagship newspaper. The two newsrooms kept their distance, and the cost savings of the combination weren't as fruitful as hoped. The Times paid $1.4 billion for The Globe and The Worcester Telegram & Gazette of central Massachusetts in 1993, yet were forced by the industry's near implosion to write down the value of that unit by $814 million in 2007. The sting is still being felt.

Unfortunately for The Globe, the newspaper has never been able to win the same proportion of online subscribers as The New York Times newspaper to compensate for declines in advertising. The Globe unit endured a 7.8% drop in advertising revenue last year, similar to the Times. Yet while the Times saw subscriber sales rise 11%, The Globe's circulation sales fell 1.7%.

Which brings us back to The Globe as a newspaper and the events of April 15.

Reached in Tampa at the annual gathering of the Newspaper Association of America, Caroline Little, the group's president and a former executive at - The Washington Post Company ( WPO), said the panicked scramble for information demonstrated the essential role of the newspaper in a community, and by extension, in society.

Newspapers, whether online or print, Little said, remain the go-to source of information, and the events and user habits bore that out. While the numbers of dead and injured fluctuated depending on Twitter feed, The Globe held firm at two, and then only later increased the total to three. But the numbers only told a part of the story, and The Globe captured the full range of people caught up in the turmoil of Monday's explosions.

"When something like what happened in Boston occurs, the first thing people do is go to the local newspaper because it's a trusted source," Little said. "Newspapers are the No. 1 source for trusted content, both print and online - it's really the brand. The paywalls came down because it was mission critical to get the news out. Ultimately, newspapers play a very important public service."

The problem then for newspapers is how to translate that fundamental community reliance, that sense of trust, into revenue. The Globe's traffic over the next few days won't generate additional revenue, but further down the road readers may have a greater appreciation of solid, fact-based reporting and eventually subscribe to the Web site, and even to its print newspaper.

The paywall remains a tricky question, and a center of debate. It both gives and takes away. But the experience of this week may generate new ideas about how The Globe can engage its readers and win subscribers. Little was quick to add that Globe reporters, like reporters everywhere, use Twitter and Facebook and other means of quick communication.

The trick remains marrying the trusted brand with the new technologies.

The New York Times was falling 2.2% on Wednesday to $9.16, trimming its advance this year to 8.1%. Shares have gained 45% in the past 12 months.

Written by Leon Lazaroff in New York

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