The Chicago Sun-Times’s Digital De-volution

What a curiously retro thing the Chicago Sun-Times done: launched a subscription-based, e-mail delivered version of its daily printed newspaper. It’s free to subscribers, 20 to 35 cents per day for others, depending on the deal. The pulp-in-your-palms version is priced at .18 per day. 

[Go to the paper’s conventional Web home page, where you will find a module that leads to a 7-day free trial subscription.]

Two observations:

1. This is hardly new: The New York Times, Washington Post and some other newspapers debuted similar products years ago, during Web .09 or so, when papers’ Web sites were more primitive and Web users more tentative. This exact-digital-replica product was part of a transitional strategy, something to accommodate reluctant adopters and out-of-market customers who didn’t cotton to the way news is presented on the Web. It also provided a way to permit in-context viewing of newspaper ads.

The Post and the Times still sell this edition, priced at about what the Sun-Times is charging. Today, looking at the roster of offerings by NewsStand Inc., a company funded partly by the New York Times, it appears at least 30 daily papers offer digital distrubution. NewsStand claims satisfied users and some circulation growth for clients. Still, these products seem to have won miniscule mindshare. Most papers that offer the service promote only via a tiny HTML link near the bottom of the page. There is no evidence this is a growth engine for newspapers fighting circulation declines. 

2. All of which raises the question of what’s going on here. Is the Sun-Times digital-version launch (the most favorable interpretation) a wily adoption of a product just coming into its own? Or (the unkind view) a sign of desperate lunge after lunch money?

To cointinue the generous thought, there are a few arguments to support this digital de-volution: (a) Increased broadband penetration improves the user experience; (b) it’s being used as an incentive to keep subscribing to the paper itself; and (c). . . sorry, I can’t think of another. Aside from lunch money. 

To continue the less generous interpretation, the user experience of the Sun-Times product, even with broadband, is truly lousy. (Dial-up access for this product is nearly impossible to imagine.) The articles on the largest full-page view are not legible. To read a story, you have to click on it and wait for a pop-up window to appear. These pages load slowly and navigate poorly. This is quickly frustrating, enough so that when I find something I like I just want to click on the regular-old Web version and read the damn thing. The comics are almost too small to read, and Sudoku. . .well, you click on it and see the puzzle. You can print it out and solve it, I suppose. Or just click to the Sun-Times Web site for the interactive one. 

As the Editor and Publisher article announcing this product points out, the Sun-Times is taking several new steps to deal with the changing newscape, including outsourcing some hard-copy distribution to the Chicago Tribune. It’s also revamped its other Web offerings to add the usual bloggery, commenting, outlinks to Web content, and so on.

Hmmm: Cutting costs on print version distribution. Beefing up the online version. Introducing the digital replica.

This may be the missing reason for this puzzling back-to-the-future move. Could this signal a new transitional strategy–to a scenario where the printed Sun-Times no longer exists? 

Explore posts in the same categories: Chicago Sun-Times, media, news, print-to-digital

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