The future lab

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Many editors in Europe share this overwhelming and slightly disheartening belief that if anything happens to newspapers in the United States, it will sooner or later happen elswhere, too. Rather than being an inevitable destiny, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: newspapers copy American solutions, and often create similar challenges. In that sense, the American media market is an experimental playground for the rest of the world.

That applies also to my employer, Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest quality newspaper in Poland, which in 2014 introduced a metered paywall similar to one The New York Times introduced. With 100,000 subscribers, we are doing remarkably well, but, knock on wood, also constantly trying to anticipate possible future difficulties. Probably that is why the prospect of visiting several media company headquarters has been looming large in my mind since the program of this fellowship was announced.

On Wednesday, I got to visit the Star Tribune, the largest newspaper in Minnesota. There, sitting in a large meeting room with flat-screen TVs and laptops, Terry Sauer, assistant managing director for digital, delivered an improvised speech on competition with local TV stations, use of multimedia and what I would call a “digital first” philosophy: “Post the news online, journo, and prepare the print version later”. It was not a big suprise for me to find out that the Star Tribune also drew some inspiration from The New York Times model.

On the very same day, I filed a ”spy” report to my editors-in-chief, because Sauer revealed two interesting strategies that enabled the newspaper to increase its number of subscriptions in a remarkably short time.

First, the Star Tribune embedded a paypal button on mobile. It turned out revolutionary. Many would-be subscribers had been ready to pay for content, but stopped short of completing the lengthy registration process. Now they had a simple tool – and the website started to cash in.

Second, instead of setting a limit of 10 or five free articles a month, the Star Tribune went for ”day visits” solution. Let’s say you start reading on Wednesday. You can read 10, 20, 40 articles – that is not a problem. Same on Thursday. But come Friday, if you want to continue reading, you will have to pay. This clever system presents the reader all the goodies only to suddenly snatch them away, leaving a healthy appetite.

Will my newspaper copy this experiment? I don’t know. But it was good to send my editors another piece of advice from the Star Tribune editor: if you want to maintain high quality, you have to protect the newsroom as much as possible. The Star Tribune has laid off some people from other departments, but despite economic hard times for the newspaper company, most of its journalists kept their jobs.