Seattle Times Rolling Out New Paid Mobile Apps, Hints at Paywall

2/29/12Follow @curtwoodward

The Seattle Times plans to offer premium paid Web apps for tablets and smartphones in late April, part of an emerging digital strategy that also has the family-owned newspaper hinting at a possible paywall for traditional website access.

In a press release, the newspaper said the upcoming “tablet and smartphone editions” were built in the advanced HTML5 web development language, which offers more flexibility for multimedia elements. That also has something to do with why the paper isn’t referring to them as “apps” per se—they’ll actually be separate websites optimized for smartphone and tablet users, with special features like touch-responsive interfaces.

The Times says the new tablet product will “provide an elegant user experience, tailored to the device,” with a new emphasis on “Editor’s Picks” to highlight content. The new smartphone version sounds like a different beast, with more of a focus on quick-hitting headlines, traffic, and weather.

Importantly, the Times says the new mobile offerings will be rolled out free to print subscribers, while people who don’t subscribe to the paper will be able to buy a digital-only subscription. The Times says its existing website and smartphone apps “will remain free and open for the time being,” which indicates that some form of paywall is either on its way, or at least being contemplated.

“Given the ever-changing dynamics in our business, we have been and continue to pay attention to paywalls and metered content models. At the present time, we are not planning to institute a paywall. That said, it is something we will continue to consider, among other models,” Times spokeswoman Jill Mackie said in response to a follow-up question.

If the Times does opt for paid Web access across the board, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise, since many newspaper publishers are experimenting with paywalls this year. Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, and the Los Angeles Times announced plans for online paywalls within days of each other last week.

Both of those plans appear to be headed toward some version of the “metered” model used by The New York Times, which cuts Web readers off after a certain number of articles in a given month—with some ways around it.

Like most other newspapers in the U.S., The Seattle Times has struggled with declining revenues in recent years as the shift to digital advertising has cut into the industry’s business model. The Times laid off another 20 people company-wide late last year, including five from the newsroom, following years of earlier cutbacks.

Publisher Frank Blethen also recently announced that the company is looking to sell more of its real estate in the South Lake Union neighborhood, which has been revitalized by Amazon.com’s new campus. In fact, the Times earlier this year relocated its newsroom to a nearby building that it sold and leased back to raise cash.

In his internal e-mail announcing the possible real estate sales, leaked to media blogger Jim Romenesko, Blethen said the Times’ previously “onerous bank debt” was no longer a major financial concern. But its pension obligations are a bigger worry, he wrote, and a driving force behind the decision to cash out the remaining real estate.

It’ll be interesting to see how this new plan for paid digital products plays in the Seattle market, which has been a relative hotbed of innovation in online journalism.

There are robust community news blogs and professional neighborhood news sites around the city, and veteran journalists have started online-only news sources covering local politics and broader civic stories. In the technology business sphere, Xconomy often competes with GeekWire and TechFlash, which is part of the Puget Sound Business Journal.

There also are free websites for local TV and radio stations, the city’s two weekly newspapers, and seattlepi.com, the all-digital successor to Hearst’s former print paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which was shut down in 2009. Hearst hasn’t said how the P-I online version is doing, but the staff has dwindled over time, including the recent departure of its top local manager, Michelle Nicolosi.

[Note: My wife works for The Seattle Times, but I didn't talk to her about this story.]

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • Gene

    I can’t wait to hear how much they will be paying us to read their articles!