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Daily Star paywall to charge online readers

Changes are coming to the website of the Arizona Daily Star.

The site has changed its URL, from azstarnet.com to tucson.com, and a long-delayed paywall was rolling out on Sunday, with publisher Chase Rankin offering scanty details in a paean to the shifts in the site.

"... we are introducing a subscription model called Full Access," Rankin wrote. "Print subscribers will continue to have full access to all of the Star’s valuable digital content when and how you want it. Nonsubscribers will have limited access to local content before they are asked to subscribe."

A short promo video with Rankin and newspaper Editor Bobbie Jo Buel indicated that readers can view 10 stories per month before the paywall is triggered. A link to a subscription page was posted later in the night — online-only access now costs $13 per month.

Like most newspapers, the Star didn't call its system a "paywall" in the announcement. The standard industry term for charging Internet readers doesn't resonate well with consumers — although it does appear in the behind-the-scenes HTML markup of the new website. Comments critical of the move were being scrubbed from the Star website.

While the site offered print subscribers the option to register their subscription on the website, there was no readily apparent requirement (or ability) for online-only readers to pay in the early morning hours Sunday. Readers were able to pull up far more than 10 stories without triggering any paywall action.

The move appears targeted as much as shoring up print circulation as monetizing online readership. The Star is charging the same amount for just online readership as for a package that includes online access and a print newspaper on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Print circulation at newspapers across the country, including the Star, has been declining for years. The Star missed a filing deadline for their most recent report with the Alliance of Audited Media. Even if that were available, shifts in what's counted by the industry-sponsored body, formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulation, make it nearly impossible to judge year-over-year changes in readership.

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Lee Enterprises announced more than two years ago that it would build paywalls to charge readers of most of the company's websites. The Star was one of the last papers in the troubled national chain to not cut off access for readers who don't pony up.

Paywalls have a mixed record at other newspapers. Many, including the Dallas Morning News just last week, have dropped them after finding a small potential bump in revenue wasn't worth losing more readers.

Lee has been saddled with debt — owing more than a billion dollars at one point, with the company's balance sheet showing it still owed more than $800 million at last report. The company's CEO, Mary Junck, has been granted more than $2.5 million in extra pay since the chain exited bankruptcy in 2012.

Star employees were called into an all-hands meeting on Wednesday to learn about the impending changes to the site, including the "Full Access" plan to charge online readers.

The paper's editor and Rankin said on the website that they'll answer reader questions about the changes on Monday.

The paper has shifted its web presence to tucson.com, a URL first registered in 1994, and subsequently sold to the partnership that controls Tucson's daily newspaper plant — for years Lee and ex-Tucson Citizen owner Gannett. The South Park operation took down what had been a fluffy events-oriented site and portal to both newspapers a couple of years ago, redirecting traffic to azstarnet.com.

Thursday, that reversed, with links to old Star stories redirecting to the tucson.com address. While the content is still laid out much the same as the previous site, it features a slightly new skin surrounding it, with the background having changed from blue to black, and a new tucson.com logo replacing the one for starnet.

The arrangement of the logos demonstrates a shift in branding, with the Star's nameplate showing smaller than the site's logo. The previous design emphasized the Star's print title, with a smaller azstarnet.com logo below. The site follows one of Lee's standard web templates.

Sources have indicated that links to Star stories from Facebook and other social media sites won't be counted against 10 free articles per month allotted to each unique visitor.

When the chain tested paywalls at its six papers in Wyoming and Montana a few years ago, readers with a paid subscription to the print newspaper were charged about $20 per year to read stories online, while nonprint readers were charged $50-$75 per year.

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At the $13 per month online-only rate, readers would have to pay $156 to access the Star's website.

At Lee's other large paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, access to premium content for online subscribers runs $13.50 monthly.

All of those paywalls have been reportedly simple to circumvent, with many of the chain's papers relying on a PressPlus subscription system, and the P-D on a setting in the HTML of each page.

Lee owns 48 newspapers around the country, with joint interest in four others, including the Star.

The company's partner in the Tucson paper, Gannett Inc., is the former publisher of the Tucson Citizen. While the press stopped rolling for that paper in 2009, Gannett and Lee remain partners in the operation.

Gannett rolled out a paywall for the Arizona Republic in September 2012.

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Latest comments on this storyRead all 19 »

19
151 comments
Jul 14, 2014, 9:10 pm
-0 +1

Bret Linden reported:

     
     
EllieMae typed:

     
     
The Star chat is slow. Looks like they’re using planted questions. And editing them. #epicfail

Please don’t tell me you’re surprised by this…

No, but it’s kind of nice to throw this back in their face, doncha think?

18
1768 comments
Jul 14, 2014, 6:08 pm
-0 +2

EllieMae typed:

     
     
The Star chat is slow. Looks like they’re using planted questions. And editing them. #epicfail

Please don’t tell me you’re surprised by this…

17
542 comments
Jul 14, 2014, 3:38 pm
-0 +2

@Bret Linden, Here and there, perhaps.

I was referring to “We reserve the right to make up the rules as we go along.” ; )

Sorry, we missed your input...

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Click image to enlarge

The Star's Rankin and Buel in a screenshot from a promo video.

Media roundup

In other local media news, longtime Star reporter Phil Villarreal was laid off late last month. The former film critic, later assigned as a regional reporter, had his position eliminated, he said.

"I lost my job of 17 years today. I must have left it under my bed, or maybe it fell out of my pants pocket when I was using the bathroom," he said in a blog post. "I had worried about layoffs for many of the past several years, but strangely had slipped into a comfort zone, assuming that my job was as safe as any, and that the herd had been thinned out as much as possible for the time being."

"As soon as I stepped into the office and saw a higher-up waiting for me, I knew what was going on. Like my cancer-stricken dog, Goose, when he felt the piercing of the vet's life-ending syringe in his neck, I accepted my fate with solemn dignity. Or apathy? I was told I'd be paid for the remainder of the day, receive a last paycheck and lose my benefits at midnight. They asked me to hand over my badge and lanyard and told me they'd box up all the junk in my desk for me and ship it home. The upshot, encased in kindness, was that I'd never be allowed to go anywhere near my desk again. Just like that, it was no longer my desk, but just a desk."

Also released was the long-serving music editor for the Tucson Weekly, Steve Seigel. 

Seigel, whose byline hadn't appeared in the alt-weekly for several months, had managed the publication's coverage of Tucson's music scene for a decade and a half. The paper, along with Inside Tucson Business, was recently sold to 10/13 Communications, a chain of small publications that also operates the Northwest Explorer and East Valley Tribune.

"Apparently the new owners can't afford a music editor,." he said on Facebook. "Never mind the fact that in January (TW's editor, Dan Gibson) told me that he gave a staff member a raise and needed me to step down from my job in order to pay for it, months before the paper was actually sold."

"It's been a great run and I've been privileged to have my Tucson dream job for over 15 years. I can't thank you all enough for being so kind and encouraging over all these years," he said.

In addition to removing Seigel from the masthead, the Weekly also let go local cartoonists. One, Arnie Bermudez, has begun contributing editorial cartoons to TucsonSentinel.com.