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ProJo Drops Pay Wall Plans

Over the last couple of years, a handful of daily newspapers have adopted "pay walls," requiring customers to pay for on-line access to certain stories. The most prominent local adopter: the Newport Daily News.

The strategy is two-fold: the pay wall is designed, in part, to boost the bottom line for web sites that have proven poor profit centers; but it is also meant to drive some customers back to the more lucrative paper-and-ink version.

Media analysts have generally frowned on the idea. A few niche publications - the Wall Street Journal and some trade papers - have successfully erected pay walls. But large-market daily papers, which face competition from all manner of web sites and television stations, will probably have trouble convincing customers to pay for on-line content they can find elsewhere for free.

Well, it seems the Providence Journal's management has reached a similar conclusion. At least for now. After strongly suggesting earlier this year that the paper would erect a pay wall for some local stories, a shift in plans. Publisher Howard Sutton, in an email sent to employees today and obtained by the Phoenix, writes:

Projo.com will remain a free Web site that emphasizes most of the content that our online audiences value highly. Meanwhile, we will be more discriminating and deliberate in how we disseminate our premium newspaper content.

ProJo management does not respond to press inquiries. So the Phoenix called ProJo reporter John Hill, head of the Providence Newspaper Guild union, for a translation. It seems that, rather than putting key local stories behind a pay wall, the paper will offer abbreviated versions of those stories. The idea is to sate online readers most interested in quick updates, while giving readers interested in the complete story a reason to buy the hard copy of the paper.

This hardly feels like a bold step for a paper that has watched circulation and advertising revenue plummet in recent years. But in such an uncertain environment, Hill says he likes the cautious approach. "It doesn't go further than the market does right now," he says. "It's an option that leaves all the other options open."

The strategy will go hand-in-hand with a redesign of the web site, set for a launch next summer, according to Sutton's email. Local web design firm Exnihilo will craft the new site.

The paper has also engaged marketing firm Nail Communications "to strengthen the graphical representation of our brand" - in the newspaper, online, and on mobile platforms.

Sutton, in his memo, said the paper is still planning to launch an electronic "e-edition" of the paper next summer, making the paper accessible on the iPad, iPhone and other mobile devices. The paper is licensing the New York Times' Press Engine technology for this endeavor.

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