’s latest paywall plan – Diet Projo?

The Providence Journal’s publisher, Howard Sutton, issued a memo yesterday explaining what’s happening with the paper’s long-gestating plans to make readers start paying for some content, Dave Scharfenberg reports. Although Projo executives have been cagey about what they’re planning – and they never speak to the press – this looks like an evolution of their paywall strategy, not an abandonment of it.

The old plan was apparently to keep some of the paper’s lengthier local stories off the free Web altogether – no HTML version would go on at all. According to Scharfenberg’s report, the new plan is to post short summaries of those stories online, but only offer the full versions to print and (eventually) electronic-edition subscribers. Think of it as “Diet Projo.”

With print circulation and revenue still plummeting, the question is whether this will help The Journal stabilize its finances. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other paper that offers abbreviated stories online with full versions available to subscribers. I asked Dan Kennedy, the Northeastern professor and prominent press critic, what he thought of the idea, and here’s what he said:

The Journal is sacrificing its website in order to bolster its print edition, which is where it makes most of its money. I understand why Journal managers are doing this, but it’s a short-term solution that could prove harmful in the long term. I also wonder whether it will even accomplish anything. Newspaper readers are skimmers, and a headline and brief synopsis of a story may be all that they want.

That’s a good point. Although I know all of you linger over each lovingly chosen word that appears here on Nesi’s Notes, in most cases people skim, skim, skim.

In fact, what the new strategy reminds me of most is The New York Times’ TimesDigest, a nine-page synopsis of the daily paper the company publishes primarily for cruise ships and hotels. (Here’s a PDF example of it.) “TimesDigest indicates that making New York Times stories shorter while retaining their essential news value ain’t really that hard,” Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote in 2007. Will some people be content with an online “ProjoDigest” and opt to skip a subscription?

There were other interesting tidbits in Sutton’s memo. The Journal has retained two of Providence’s savvier firms to help it move forward: ExNihilo is designing a new version of slated to debut next summer, while Nail Communications is helping the paper “strengthen the graphical representation of our brand.” And the release date for the paper’s new iPhone and iPad apps, which will use the NYT’s new Press Engine system, also has been pushed back a bit to next summer.

It looks like 2011 will be the Year of the Paywall for the newspaper industry, with The New York Times and its sister paper The Boston Globe among those planning to stop offering their entire print edition for free online after New Year’s. I’ve reached out to a few other media analysts to get their thoughts on the Projo’s plan, and I’ll update when I hear back.

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