Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Post-Gazette to Charge for Online Access

Increasingly, traditional news organizations are charging for online content.  The Wall Street Journal, for example, makes a certain amount of its content available for free but as that information is archived, it is then available only to online subscribers.  Those same subscribers have full access to the Journal’s content.

This is a model more and more national, regional, trade and local media are emulating.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first dipped its toe in the pay-for-content waters with PG-Plus.

More recently, the Post-Gazette announced that starting October 1st, the newspaper will charge $9.95 per month for digital-only readers.  This will give them unlimited access to the Post-Gazette’s “website, smartphone app, tablet app and to electronic editions of the newspaper.”

Those who receive home delivery of the paper editions of the publication will have unlimited digital access.

Non-subscribers will have limited online access to a certain number of stories per month.

According to the Post-Gazette, it receives one million visitors to its online edition each week.

Post-Gazette president Joe Pepe said this via the newspaper’s report on the change on its site: “The decision to implement a paymeter grows out of our fundamental belief that our customers recognize the value in our local news products.  This model allows us to continue to provide quality journalism to our readers.”

In its announcement, the Post-Gazette pointed to the “paymeter” trend, saying this move puts it on the same path as the Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even sister publication the Toledo Blade, all of which now charge for content.

The PG’s Challenge

The Post-Gazette’s primary business challenge is it’s not the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, or even the Toledo Blade.

The first three major dailies I mentioned are national brands, premium news brands, that a national audience has shown it will pay for and support.  Still, at least the Times and the Post have encountered their share of financial hardships of late, enough to raise the question of whether charging for content is something they can do or must do (more on that in a bit).

The Blade’s situation is a little different.  Like the Post-Gazette, it’s a local paper.  Unlike the Post-Gazette, it has no real competition.  The Blade can charge and if Toledo residents want to catch up with news online, they can be forced to pay. 

The Post-Gazette has to contend with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, its major print and online competitor.  The Tribune-Review does not charge for its online content.  While the two publications have distinct differences in the way they cover the news, the fact is online readers have a viable free alternative to the PG if all they want to do is get the latest scores, weather, news and obits. 

It’s possible that the Post-Gazette isn’t so much driven to this decision because it can, but rather, because it must.  A publication that can charge is one that recognizes its value and its demand among consumers and knows it can charge a premium.

A publication that must charge is one that is faced with the escalating costs of operation and must find ways to cover increasing costs against decreasing revenue sources.

Across the country, old-line news organizations like the Post-Gazette continue to maintain expensive printing operations, news room staffs, delivery and distribution systems, and even legacy costs such as retirement plans and expensive benefits programs.  They struggle to meet these obligations while consumers migrate to free online news sources.  Circulations decrease, diminishing the advertising clout newspapers once had (reducing ad revenues along the way).

The solutions to such major business challenges are not simple, but charging for online content may only complicate the problem.

This situation reminds me of a committee I once served on for a Catholic school.  Every year, enrollment decreased and tuition increased.   The communications challenge was conventionally seen as centered on creating awareness of the value of the education.  If only people would understand the true value of the education, the problem would be solved, administrators assumed.

Actually, the problem was the price increase.  Everyone has a tipping point.  At some point, no matter how much people love a product or a service, they will decide they simply can’t afford it. 

Once the news organization begins to charge, that one-million-visitors-per-week number will surely drop significantly.  And still, the newspaper will continue to carry the financial burdens of any old-line major daily.

The questions that have to be on the mind of the Post-Gazette’s leadership have to be: Will enough people pay for online access?  How many will migrate to the free site of our competitor?  What will we do if we don’t amass enough online subscriptions?  How much is enough?  How much time do we give this? 

Those are just a few of many difficult questions as the Post-Gazette wrestles with this unprecedented period of transition.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Pope Provides Blueprint for Dialogue with Critics

Recently, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church wrote a response to one of his critics, the founder of La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper. 

For background, Dr. Eugenio Scalfari, the founder and editor of the newspaper is an avowed atheist.  He had posed a number of issues to the pope through his media channel, mostly centered on whether God could forgive a non-believer.

The pope’s response not only caught Scalfari off guard, but created a media event that no one expected.

Scalfari told the Christian Post that “he did not expect the South American Pope to respond ‘so extensively and so affectionately, with such fraternal spirit.’"

At the same time, that response in letter form generated a good deal of media coverage centered on a simplistic and misleading sound bite that the pope was suggesting he believed that non-believers could be forgiven for their non-belief to the extent that they’d be welcomed into Heaven even if they never convert to a belief in God.

The story caught my attention for the same reasons it made news in the first place.  Certainly, I am no theologian and wouldn’t venture into that portion of this story for a PR blog.  But from a communications standpoint, this is indeed new ground for the Catholic Church.

So, I read the letter, which was extremely well written, and in the end provides a blueprint for how to publicly engage our toughest critics.

The first thing I found was that the media missed the pope’s point.  The only thing it got right was that this pope did not deliver a blanket rejection to non-believers, as perhaps, the media would have expected.

But still, there are a couple of sections that I think are instructional for those of us in PR when faced with critics whose positions are zealous.

In the introductory section, the pope sets the tone.  He thanks Scalfari for reading the encyclical Lumen fidei and then says it “is directed not only to confirm in the faith in Jesus Christ those who recognize themselves in it, but also to arouse a sincere and rigorous dialogue with those whom, like you (Scalfari), describe themselves ‘a non-believer for many years interested and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth.’”

The lesson: This is the verbal equivalent of an open-armed embrace to his critic, disarming him intellectually speaking, in trust that the dialogue is not meant to determine a winner or a loser, but rather true understanding.

Later in the letter, the pope describes why he is not taking a superior approach to non-believers.  He quotes the encyclical: “’The believer isn’t arrogant; on the contrary, truth makes him humble, knowing that, more than our possessing it, it is truth that embraces and possesses us.  Far from stiffening us, the certainty of the faith puts us on the way, and makes possible witness and dialogue with everyone.’ This is the spirit that animates the words that I write to you.”

The lesson: It’s not enough to say you want dialogue with critics.  If your position is conciliatory, you need to explain more about why that is the case. This further builds trust and suggests that there are no hidden agendas.

Once the pope explains his personal journey through faith that led him to his positions that Scalfari had raised in his criticism, he arrives at the most critical point of the letter which provides a perfect illustration for communicators:

“Now, it is precisely beginning from here, from this personal experience of faith lived in the Church, that I feel at ease in listening to your questions and in seeking, together with you, the ways through which we might, perhaps, begin a segment of the way together.

“Forgive me if I do not follow step by step the arguments you propose in the editorial of July 7.  It seems to be more fruitful, if not more congenial, to go in a certain sense to the heart of your considerations….”

The lesson: The big lesson here is that the pope did not allow his critic to trap him into a point-by-point argument that was pre-structured by the critic to ensure that anything the pope my say in response is lessened or diminished.  Rather, the pope addressed the essence of the criticism as he put it quite succinctly, “to go in a certain sense to the heart” of the critic’s points.  This allows the pope to respond on his terms without side-stepping the critic’s points.

In the end, the pope is unlikely to convert someone like Scalfari, but if his goal was to break down barriers, begin dialogue and start an effort to find common ground, his approach was tremendously effective.  By not dismissing his critics outright, or even worse, ignoring them, the pope respected them and sent a message that everyone, even his critics are important to him, but that he is at ease with his own positions on sensitive matters for discussion. And from there, we see the foundation for dialogue.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A PR Gimmick that Works

Every year the Pittsburgh Penguins usher in the new season with a series of activities, many of them goodwill gestures to start to engage their fan base for the upcoming hockey year.  One of the most notable customs is having current players hand-deliver tickets to season-ticket holders.

Of course, this is a PR gimmick in the most traditional sense of the term.  Most season ticket holders get their tickets in the mail, or they pick them up.   And when the players deliver the tickets, it’s usually with news cameras and reporters in tow.

By definition, a PR gimmick is a contrived event to garner some publicity of public attention.  But not all PR gimmicks are so contrived that they are phony and therefore ineffective.

The Penguins appear to have managed this delicate balance quite well.  Here are some reasons why it works:

·         The stars are not exempt.  Sidney Crosby is the star of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team captain, and arguably, one of the marquee faces of the game of hockey.  Yet, he took the time this past week to personally deliver Sandy Darling’s season tickets to him and his family. He spent over a half-hour in Mr. Darling’s basement game room, which is decorated like a mini-shrine to Penguins hockey.  After the hockey player left their house, the Darling family told the press they liked the star even more.

·         Many players get involved. This week, 14 active Penguin players canvassed the region delivering tickets.  The volume of players ensures maximum impact and creates the perception that the Penguins are engaged with their fans because, well, they are.

·         Most other teams wouldn’t think of this. The Penguins have instituted this tradition in an era where professional sports athletes are known more for luxury lifestyles than for connecting with the common fan.  The media and the culture surrounding some athletes insulate them from regular people.  This ticket delivery practice bucks this trend to positive result.

·         Timing is everything.  The players deliver the tickets right before the start of training camp, heightening interest in hockey just as the Steelers begin regular season and the Pittsburgh Pirates make a run at the playoffs.  This helps keep hockey relevant when it could easily be overlooked.

If this were an isolated instance, perhaps it wouldn’t be as effective. But during the course of a season, Sidney Crosby alone is known to give needy or sick kids tickets to games.  And he has made countless visits to hospitals and charitable organizations.  He does so, so extensively that if it were disingenuous that would come through.  Many other Penguins players do the same, sometimes to fanfare, but quite often in quiet.  Yet, Pittsburgh is still a small enough town that word gets out.

On the ice, the Penguins brand speaks for itself.  Off the ice, the organization has carefully nurtured a brand that presents its players as “one of us,” successful pro athletes who haven’t forgotten where they came from.  And above all, they haven’t forgotten the fan.  That philosophy has served them well.  Because it’s real.

And that is why this is one PR gimmick that works.
Here's a news report of Sidney Crosby delivering tickets a couple of years ago:


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Remembering 9/11

Two gaping square holes mark the footprint where the twin towers once stood.  Water flows beautifully down the walls of those holes into a seemingly bottomless pit.  A new building is rising nearby.  It’s called the Freedom Tower and it will be taller than the World Trade Center was.  On a sunny day, children run and play around their parents, and the sky is as blue and clear as it was on September 11, 2001.  These kids had not yet been born on that day, and they really don’t have a clue what happened here.  And maybe that’s the point of a park-like memorial like this.

Celebrate life by continuing to live it. That’s the philosophy of many a survivor regardless of time and place. 

I can still picture the island of Manhattan from the 93rd floor of one of the towers (I forget which one), as I looked out a window that stretched from the ceiling to my feet.  Funny thing but I still remember noticing that to maximize the view, there was no baseboard at the floor where my feet were.  Just glass.

I was at a meeting in the World Trade Center a few months before the towers came down.  It was the first and only time I’d been in the buildings, and since I didn’t know if I’d return, I took the time to drink in that view and try to commit it to memory.  Subsequently, the events of September 11th of that year ensured that my own personal pictures of the place, of that view saved in my mind, would be locked in for as long as I can now remember. 

On September 11th when I saw events unfold on television, while I couldn’t relate at all to what those people were going through, I could close my eyes and see the City of New York from the 93rd floor.  I could imagine what it would be like to see a jet come directly at this building.

And in doing so, I could try to provide a first attempt at context for something that still seems to make no sense.

The memorial on the site today seems to tell us never to forget – it compels us never to forget – but to move on, to live our lives here where we are free to live our lives.

I’ve read quite a bit about September 11th since 2001.  I’ve watched countless documentaries, news reports and movies. Through it all, a few constants do come to mind.

A small number of people carried out a mission that was conceived by a terrorist organization that could not tolerate the fact that America is so tolerant.  Through all of its warts, the United States of America is built on freedoms and individual liberties that allow many and diverse groups to be who they are, and to live their lives as they wish insofar that they do not infringe on the rights of their fellow citizens.

Those who hijacked jets and killed thousands, targeting America’s iconic locations, simply could not tolerate that. 

Today, the locations that were attacked have been restored.  They are not the same as before, but they are not scarred in ruin.  Today, we remember and we continue to live in freedom.  We celebrate life.  Where the World Trade Center once stood, children play and laugh, oblivious to the tragedy that made the place sacred. 

Perhaps that is the greatest and most powerful response to those who on that day 12 years ago tried to take our pursuit of happiness away from us.  To live, to laugh, to move on, but to never forget.  Never forget.