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One Paper Tries a Print-Only Experiment

By Andy Alexander

Readers reacting to my Sunday column were overwhelmingly opposed to The Post’s decision to offer last week’s “Murder on Swann Street” series only online. The column explained the rationale of Post editors in promoting the two-part narrative in the newspaper, but forcing readers to go online to read it.

Typical was this e-mail from reader Joanna Stafford or Alexandria, who said the Web-only decision “annoyed me to the point of near rage.”

“If I’m paying for this paper, I expect to get the full story in the printed paper,” said Stafford, who owns several computers but prefers reading the printed product. “The pleasure of having a newspaper is that I can curl up on the couch, in bed, or sit on the deck to read my paper. I don’t want to carry a computer everywhere...When people subscribe to a newspaper, they want to read the newspaper.”

While The Post chose to force readers to its Web site for a compelling series, at least one American metro paper is experimenting with just the opposite. The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently decided that its Sunday paper would publish certain “exclusive” content – investigative projects, for instance, or lengthy profiles – that isn’t available on its free Web site until the following Wednesday.

Editor Nancy Barnes told me today that the decision wasn’t made as a way of retaining print circulation. Audited figures for the six-month period ending March 31 showed daily circulation of about 320,000 was down only slightly while Sunday circulation of about 500,000 had fallen by about 7 percent.

Rather, Barnes said, “we decided that if you have paying customers, you need to do something for them.”

The response from readers has been positive, she said. “The readers have been realty, really appreciative. As a business, we have ignored some of the people who pay for subscriptions.”

Even some print advertisers have expressed appreciation, she said, because they view the paper's print-only decision as an effort to retain readers who will see their ads.

Barnes said there is no evidence that online traffic has suffered by waiting several days before making high-value content available on the paper’s Web site,

“It really hasn’t hurt Web traffic,” she said. "Web traffic is really driven by breaking news,” which is still available instantly on the site.

While many readers e-mailed me to express their displeasure with The Post’s online-only decision, one wrote with a good question about whether reporter Paul Duggan’s “Murder on Swann Street” series could be entered in the Pulitzer Prize competition if none of it appeared in the newspaper.

The answer is yes. Late last year, the Pulitzer Prize board announced that it would allow entries consisting solely of online content in all of its 14 categories.

By Andy Alexander  | June 8, 2009; 4:37 PM ET
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