Online newspapers are requiring users to register — but at what cost?
By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review
Afriend, Jon Maples, e-mailed the other day with a question. “Is it my imagination, or are newspaper sites suddenly requiring registration to read the news?” he writes, citing the Web sites of the Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News. “I have to say that the Dallas registration was so intrusive and required so many fields that I gave up.”
What’s going on?
Mandatory registration is making the rounds at major online news sites, as media companies try to peel away the Internet’s cloak of anonymity and build closer relationships with their customers. But it’s a tricky dance, and one that risks alienating news junkies when they bump into registration walls as they surf from site to site.
Registration also throws up roadblocks for weblogs, community news sites, discussion boards and e-mail newsletters that point to news articles.
“Two years ago if you asked anybody in the industry, the response would have been overwhelmingly negative,” says Elaine Zinngrabe, executive producer of Latimes.com. “In 2002 we’ve come to realize that it’s a business necessity. Consumers are becoming savvy about opt-out and privacy policies, and they’ve come to expect this sort of customer interaction.”
Adds Tribune Interactive exec Mike Silver: “The Internet is becoming less anonymous.”
While a dozen mostly small online newspapers now charge for access to their sites, other media companies have taken a middle route, gating off their content until users provide personal information, such as name, address, interests and whether they subscribe to the print newspaper.
These sites now require registration:
• The New York Times on the Web has required registration since the site launched in January 1996. The Times has topped 10 million active registered users.
• Latimes.com has had more than 500,000 people sign up since it launched its registration program April 25.
• Chicagotribune.com has had 368,000 people register at its site since March and another 96,000 at ChicagoSports. Those who register at sister site Latimes.com can access the Tribune sites with just a user name and password.
• Belo Interactive began rolling out a section-by-section registration program at its newspaper and broadcast sites last year and just hit the million-registration mark. Some 660,000 of those came at Dallasnews.com, a number higher than the Dallas Morning News’ weekday print circulation, though lower than its Sunday circulation or daily readership. Belo, too, allows users to access all its sites with a single log-on and password.
• WSJ.com’s free OpinionJournal.com has begun asking for registration information — only an e-mail address is required — to read Today’s Featured Article, the piece from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.
• A handful of smaller papers, such as North Dakota’s Fargo Forum, require full registration.
When you register, the news site stores a cookie on your computer’s hard drive so that when return to the site it remembers who you are and opens the door. (For more on cookies, see the explanation on Dispatch.com.) When you use a different computer or browser, however, you have to log in again.
Twin forces driving the trend
What’s spurring the trend toward registration? Media executives cited two recurring themes: the need to form a closer relationship with their readers, and the potential for added revenue.
“Newspapers want to extend services to their customers on the Web beyond just publishing their content,” says Mike Silver, vice president of strategy and development for Tribune Interactive. “If you’re a loyal customer of Newsday, you should be able to get services on the Web, and the only way to do that is if we know who you are.”
Eric Christensen, vice president and general manager of Belo Interactive in Dallas, says, “The debate in the industry continues to rage as far as paid content vs. registration. As an organization, we don’t believe there’s a substantial opportunity to charge for our content online, but we do believe it’s reasonable to expect users to provide some information to access this valued content. We want a way to monetize that database information, and we plan to be pretty aggressive about it.”
Before we dive into issues related to money and privacy, let’s look at what kind of information media companies are capturing about their online audience.
Outside ratings services like Media Metrix and NetRatings offer some tantalizing hints about a Web site’s audience, but their sampling methods provide only limited approximations of visitor demographics. MORI Research just released an in-depth study that profiled online newspaper readers in eight markets, drawing interesting conclusions about user demographics, media habits and the fluctuating audiences between daytime office workers and evening general users. (The report, now free, will be available to the public for a small fee starting in early July; it will remain free to members of the Newspaper Association of America.)
But when push comes to shove, online newspapers have largely been flying blind about who’s coming to their own sites and why. Until now.
Belo: Active and shifting audiences
In Dallas, registration has established that 32 percent of the users of Dallasnews.com come from outside Texas. “Typically, users from out of state are coming in to read about the Dallas Cowboys or other Texas news,” Christensen says. “That could translate into our publishing a Cowboys newsletter specifically targeted to out-of-market users.”
Belo also now knows the self-reported income levels, ages and gender of its users. Males age 35-44 make up the largest demographic — 22 percent of its million-member database. Fully two-thirds of the Web site users do not read the Dallas Morning News. And 332,000 users, or 32 percent of registrants, agreed to view marketing offers from the site’s advertising partners.
Other trend spottings? “We’re still early on, but there appears to be a core group of heavy users who account for a large part of our sites’ usage, and it’s especially interesting to look at folks who stop by five or six times day,” Christensen says. “As we learn more about audience preferences, it may be more appropriate to begin looking at the Web as a programming medium where you target audiences by day part.
“If your audience from 8 to 10 a.m. is made up of high-income at-work users consuming a high amount of local news and sports, and nighttime has a younger demographic spending more time with entertainment content, that may suggest you program your site differently.”
Belo began requiring users to register for Dallasnews’ sports section in May 2001 and began working its way out, section by section, since then. Today everything except the home page and classifieds are behind the registration gate. Belo’s broadcast sites have gradually adopted registration, and two months ago the Providence Journal began requiring registration in some sections.
Christensen says of users’ reaction to mandatory registration, “There were pockets of resistance, but the complaints have been relatively few. The more experienced users have come to expect this, and they’re more willing to register with a known brand than an unknown party.”
The real test, though, was this: Would traffic drop off?
“There was an initial drop of 30 percent or so in various sections, but when breaking news occurred, we fully recovered,” he says. In May Belo Interactive had a record month for unique users (6,296,739) and page views (101,705,629).
Still, that Dallasnews registration page is pretty hellacious, with a clunky interface and too many mandatory fields. The page has been down for the past three days, as Belo rolls out a new registration form and dynamic back-end database, an official said. It’s scheduled to go live today.
Early on, Belo decided not to take the route of incremental registration by letting people provide more personal information when signing up for contests, newsletters or services.
Instead, says a person who was involved in the internal debate last year, “The marketing department won all arguments, and made the registration a ridiculously long hurdle for users.”
Christensen says simply: “Our philosophy was to go ask for a lot of information up front instead of incrementally.”
The Dallasnews.com editorial staff is “deeply involved in digging through the data” to fine-tune content offerings or the site’s navigation, though no such changes are expected this year, he says.
Christensen says of this kind of data collection: “I think that’s where things are headed — tightly focused content, targeted advertising, and e-mail newsletters that let you build relationships online between advertisers and users.”
Tribune: Growth in site loyalty and newsletter subscriptions
Tribune Interactive waded into the registration waters only this spring. Silver says there exists no corporate mandate to adopt registration, and each site is taking a wait-and-see approach to gauge how Latimes.com and Chicagotribune.com fare.
To smooth the transition, the LA Times decided to roll out registration in certain sections during a five-week period. “We didn’t want to grind people through the stadium doors all at once,” says Zinngrabe, who has been leading the local team’s registration effort. “By working into it, you gave people time to build awareness.”
Traffic is “down some,” but not significantly, she says. And users’ reaction? “It’s been surprisingly less negative than we expected.” Because the site sends e-mail to a user’s account to confirm the registration, most feedback centered on quirks in validating users’ accounts.
The LA Times’ registration process is less cumbersome than Belo’s, asking for the user’s gender, age, e-mail and street addresses, income and subscription status, with optional questions about areas of interest. A fast typist can complete the one-time process in two minutes.
And what demographic jewels has the site unearthed to date? “We’re learning we have more out-of-market visitors than we found in our last study in 1999,” Zinngrabe says, though she declined to share specifics of the preliminary results.
She says the news site’s demographics tracks closely with that of the print publication, and that the editorial staff was poring over the data “so we can better tailor new and existing content to the online audience’s interests.”
The most immediate result may come about in the form of new e-mail newsletters for subjects like movies or restaurants. “If someone checks off movies on their form, you can offer them a movies newsletter instead of starting from scratch,” she says.
At Chicagotribune.com, the registration process has resulted in “a huge growth in the number of newsletter subscribers,” including Tribune Daywatch, Tribune Alerts and Silicon Prairie, Silver says.
He suggests that user loyalty may be one outgrowth of registration and cautiously points to an uptick in return visits to the site. According to Nielsen NetRatings, the average visits per person to Chicagotribune.com rose from 3.0 in March to 3.29 in April and 4.22 in May.
One possible byproduct of registration may be the deflation of news sites’ user numbers. Media Metrix reports Latimes.com gets 2.4 million unique visitors a month. That’s theoretically possible, if 500,000 registered users visit the site and another 1.9 million unregistered users visit just the home page, Calendar Live, classifieds and shopping areas, which remain ungated. But it’s more likely that many of those 2.4 million users are phantoms — duplicate users who visit from multiple computers. (Conversely, the registration numbers are undoubtedly understated because of family members sharing the same computer. Also, don’t forget about those visitors who registered at the Tribune site.)
While the numbers may be smaller, they’re more real in a sense: customers instead of anonymous surfers.
Tribune’s Metromix city guide, meanwhile, which has brought a new audience to the company’s news sites, remains an ungated community.
Dispatch.com: Geography proves to be eye-opening
The Columbus Dispatch began introducing registration last November and made it mandatory sitewide in February. “The idea was we wanted to better know who are users are, what they’re interested in, and start exploring the idea of e-mail marketing,” says Pam Coffman, editor of Dispatch.com.
A main registration page leads to a second, optional page of interests in subjects such as sports teams, music and entertainment. “We ask because we don’t know a lot about our users,” Coffman says frankly. “We haven’t done a lot of research, it’s been mostly anecdotal. Are we giving people what they want? This helps us shape the content of the site.”
The site has attracted 204,000 registered users, with more than half of them outside of Ohio. Two reasons for that. “Ohio State football has a huge following all over the world,” she says. “And a lot of retired Ohioans are snowbirds who move to Florida but like to keep up with their home town news on the Web.”
In addition to the large number of users outside of Ohio, the Dispatch staff was also surprised by the number of audience members who live in rural areas and small towns in the state. “We thought most of our users were downtown office workers, or residents of close-in suburbs,” Coffman says. “This was eye-opening.”
Traffic dropped off only modestly after registration began, she says, with the site still drawing 225,000 to 300,000 users per month. Dispatch.com is entirely gated except for the home page, children’s features, and advertising.
Users’ reactions were mild, Coffman says. “Initially there was some resistance, but most of the complaints stopped after the first six weeks.”
Dispatch.com is now developing an advertiser-sponsored twice-a-week e-mail newsletter on OSU football due to debut in August, which will be free to registered users.
“Registration is telling us about future sources of revenue,” Coffman says. “Should we charge people for visiting the site if they live outside of Ohio, because almost all of our advertising is locally oriented? We’re nowhere near a decision on that.”
The family-owned Dispatch Printing Co. also runs sister sites 1460TheFan.com, TheNew 971.com, 10TV.com, ColumbusNow.com, ONNNews.com and Thisweeknews.com, which have begun introducing more limited forms of registration for entering a contest or joining a sports fan club.
New York Times: Targeting readers the old-fashioned way
Right from the start, New York Times Digital has been a pioneer in the wired wilderness, requiring users to sign up and fork over the demographic goods.
The result? A rich, non-intrusive and advertiser-friendly database that has grown from 1.7 million active users 18 months after launch to 10 million today. (Coincidentally, the site’s traffic also stands at about 10 million unique users per month.) In January the Times added a few new fields to its registration page, asking for job title, function, industry, and whether the user subscribes to the newspaper.
Barbara Rice, group director of research, says, “Registration lets us build a relationship and communicate with the user much more powerfully. Yes, it’s an extra step the user has to take. But it’s a quid pro quo. You’re receiving a premium product for free.”
For instance, the Times knows that 20 percent of its audience is international, which it wouldn’t know without registration. The data also helps inform content decisions, such as whether to add to the current stew of video and audio on the site, which now includes Photographer’s Journal, cooking demos, movie clips, audio reports from baseball beat reporters and other features.
“We’re examining the resources we want to commit to multimedia, so this morning we pulled registration data on which audiences are the most loyal users of multimedia,” Rice says. “The editorial side likes to know who’s reading what articles and packages. Are stories being read by a New York City audience or international audience?”
Rice has a word of caution for sites looking to adjust their news programming to the different audiences that rotate in throughout the day.
“That actually runs counter to the direction that the market is going,” she says. “TV network news is suffering because people aren’t home to watch the evening news, and people want to watch programming on demand, rather than on a network schedule. One of the major advantages of the Internet is that people can get the information they want, when they want it.”
Editorial aside, the most powerful impact of registration has come in the marketing arena. Targeted advertising is not the panacea that some media companies envision, but no other news site in the nation has even begun to attempt what the Times already does routinely.
“An advertiser can come to us and say, ‘I want to reach people in these zip codes,’ ” Rice says. “For instance, a pharmaceutical company can target women over age 35. eTrade can roll out an online advertising campaign limited to the New York area in conjunction with print and broadcast.
“We can target not only by demographics but also by behavior, by where a visitor has gone on our site. If a person frequently visits the Travel section but that section is sold out, an advertiser isn’t shut out, they can reach him as he travels throughout the rest of the site.”
The Times’ pioneering Surround Sessions, which debuted in November, lets an advertiser “follow” a user for up to five pages throughout the site. Surround Sessions can become even more effective when combined with demographic data, Rice says.
“It’s to everyone’s benefit if the ads are more relevant to the user,” she says.
The Tribune’s Silver tips his hat to the Times’ advertising and e-mail newsletter efforts. “They’ve been a real leader here,” he says. “After we begin analyzing our own data, we may find similar opportunities to market customized e-mails,” similar to the Times’ NewsTracker.
The Times has what everybody lusts after: a richly drawn customer database and the technology to slice and dice it for advertisers. Silver says Tribune Interactive is just dipping its toes into the targeted advertising waters and would need to bring aboard new technology to put it to use. Belo, too, is studying targeted ads in addition to newsletter offerings that could bring in ad dollars or subscription fees.
Privacy, personal data and taking users for granted
At this point, eight years or so into the era of online publishing, I’m inclined to give news sites the benefit of the doubt. You want us to register? If I’m a regular reader, fine, I’ll do so gladly — if the process isn’t overly invasive. If I’m a casual surfer to your site, chances are I won’t bother, and perhaps you may not miss me.
But online news sites would be mistaken to shrug off users’ privacy concerns in the viper’s pit known as the Internet. We’ve been spammed, cataloged, hoodwinked and duped far too often.
“Because we’re a known name with a long track record in our communities, people know they can trust what we do with their information,” says Belo’s Christensen.
Not so fast. Few of the companies introducing mandatory registration have done a good job in explaining why they’re taking the step and assuring us how our personal information will be used.
For instance, you may remember the horror stories about direct marketing companies trying to wed their offline dossiers — including profiles of everything you’ve bought in the past decade — to online registries. That’s still a real possibility.
The hassle factor vs. business imperatives
The news registration movement has not fared well in the weblog community. Weblog pioneer Rebecca Blood published a mini-rant Monday, complaining about the LA Times’ invasive questions and warning that many people will simply enter nonsense into the fields.
The popular Instapundit weblog also laid into the LA Times this week.
And then there’s the movement afoot to trick the news sites’ registration systems with bogus data. This Random NYTimes login form has been around for years (click the Randomize button and see what happens). Meanwhile, cypherpunk/cypherpunk is said to work as a log-in and password for the New York Times, LA Times and Chicago Tribune sites.
The Tribune’s Silver says such deceptions make up “an incredibly small” percentage of registrations. He says that users and online publishers will both have to adjust to the reality of changing times and a more realistic online landscape.
“People are certainly going to bump into more walls as they go from site to site,” he says. “For a media company thinking about registration, you need to assess where you want to be a few years from now. If you want a tighter relationship, you’ll have to think of ways to induce people to give you this information.
“In the past we’ve thought of carrots, but carrots have only limited appeal. So you need to start thinking more about sticks, and saying to people, ‘You won’t get this information unless you register.'”
Fine and well. But a stick — even a small rap on the knuckles — will send a message to the Net community. Better to add some incentive to sweeten the deal. How about rewarding people for their registration effort: a free newsletter, or a chance to interact with the newspaper’s editors or reporters online?
News sites haven’t done enough to salve the bumps and bruises that accompany an effort as ambitious as registration.
Recounts another friend: “A few days ago I went to nytimes.com on a newly downloaded Mozilla browser, which obviously didn’t have my Times registration cookie installed. I signed up in 1999 — that was two ISP accounts and two jobs ago. I have no idea what e-mail or password I plucked out of the air. And so I had to create a new account.”
News sites would score a lot of points by easing the hassle factor, especially for avid news junkies who bounce from site to site. If they’re serious about forging a closer relationship with online customers, media organizations would be smart to get to work on technology to make logging in at different news sites on different computers as painless as possible.
The answer may lie in hooking up with Microsoft’s Passport, or devising a user-protected keychain system on a hard drive or network that remembers all your passwords, or launching an online news industry initiative to simplify registration and subsequent site visits.
Registration inevitably has consequences for weblogs, collaborative news sites and newsletters that point to news articles. Says my peeved friend, “If I have to register at every site just follow a stinking link, it slows down the exchange of information. Imagine a network where every news and information site has its own registration process.”
Silver sees the day when weblogs become quasi-emissaries for favored news sites — designated facilitators that would grant users safe passage by channeling them through a shortened registration process, or perhaps even getting them a free pass into the site.
Good idea. Who’s ready to step up to the plate?