Are your readers this loyal? Are you sure?

This was something that could soften an ink-stained wretch’s heart. In light of the announcement yesterday that the New York Times plans to lay off another 100 newsroom employees, an unusual thing occurred. A few readers commenting on the story said they would be willing to pay for online content if it meant keeping reporters and editor working.

Read it here: http://www.observer.com/2009/media/comments-nyt-readers-beg-pay-online

While it is uplifting that there is reader support for paid content, the question remains just how deep does that loyalty go? And while certainly there is loyalty for the New York Times, will that same loyalty transfer down to the Daily Bugle?

My gut feeling is that, yes, there is loyalty for small, local newspapers that tend to be the main source of information in a community, and that loyalty may actually be enough to support it. But I don’t believe that loyalty grows proportionately with a newspaper’s size. The Times and  other larger metropolitan and regional papers will generate some revenue, but it won’t be enough to offset lost revenues in decreased circulations and ad revenues.

Yes, this wretch is warmed by the reader comments in the Times, but my heart is still cold enough to realize that new readers will still put free before brand. Unless you make your  brand valuable and convenient, the majority won’t be willing to pay.

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Why the Sun-Times could become the big man in Chicago

Until last week’s purchase of the Chicago Sun-Times by local financier James Tyree and a group of investors, the future of the city’s Number 2 newspaper had been in doubt.

Indeed, the paper had been on life support for many years now, after being raped and left for dead by former owner Conrad Black and his cronies a decade ago. If not for the incredible dedication and spirit of the newspaper’s staff, the Sun-Times surely would have joined the list of great nameplates that have left the face of the earth.

But Tyree’s group has come through to let the Sun-Times live another day … and it couldn’t have come at a better time for them. With a new infusion of cash and new hope, the Sun-Times could well be positioned to become the Number 1 news organization in the Chicago metro area.

It’s a bold statement, given the competition by the established Tribune Co. and with a number of suburban dailies and weeklies looking  to make inroads. But the Sun-Times Media Group has something that nobody… even the almighty Tribune … has in the Chicago market: a deep, vast and credible font of branded content.

And in the new world of news, content is golden.

In spite of all the bad things Conrad Black did to the company, he made at least one well-orchestrated move: acquiring a significant number of local newspapers in the Chicago metropolitan market. As a result, the Sun-Times media group’s holdings include the metro S-T,  two solid second-tier southern suburban dailies in the SouthtownStar and Joliet Herald-News,  three smaller suburban dailies from the former Copley chain and more than 50 suburban local weeklies in the Pioneer and Sun chains, which have recognition in the north and western suburbs.

As a result, The Sun-Times group has control of branded, local content for a majority of the Chicago metropolitan area. The Tribune Company could argue its Triblocal community products cover as much ground, one thing Triblocal  doesn’t have is the brand recognition that the S-T owned nameplates do.

I don’t think Black had the foresight to realize just what a gold mine he was putting together, but the result puts the S-T in a prime position for developing new products that could create new revenue streams from readers.

As publishers are starting to find out, paid online content is attractive to readers only if  you either are the only player in your market, or you provide a true, unique value in your market. CNN can provide paid content, as can WSJ because of what they offer for their money. The Newport, R.I., newspaper can provide paid content because readers there can’t get their local news anywhere else.

Consumers like free, but they are willing to pay a premium for convenience.  And in the world of news and information, consumers are coming back to recognized brands for credible, verified information.

The Sun-Times can capitalize on this by taking its cumulative database of news and information and slice and dice it to pare out to readers in a convenient, personal product.  The key is to take the information that its readers rely on as credible and verified, and parse it into a personalized package that can be distributed to a consumer in a  format and time schedule he demands.

Save consumers from the effort of searching out the information they need, and they may be willing to pay a modest subscription fee. Create enough products that cater to a number of  microcommunities, and you just might have enough to make up for the losses from your flagship.  

It’s not a slam dunk. It’s going to take the realization by the owners and workers that the group is no longer a number of independent publications operating on their own. It’ll take a major shift in philosophy, a lot of wall-busting, and a good amount of luck to make it happen.

But the stars are out there waiting to be aligned. And what an incredible success story it would be if it happens.