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Scripps Swims Upstream In Search of New Revenue

Depending on who you ask, Scripps’ plan to put up a pay wall within a TV station site is either revolutionary and bold, or foolhardy and quixotic. Its WCPO Cincinnati faces a tall order—make it clear to users that its digital content is superior to that of the competition, and make a convincing enough case of it that local users will pay for the premium stuff.

Can a TV station site actually succeed with a paid model? Some think so. “I give Scripps credit—I think they’re very smart,” says Steve Schwaid, VP of digital strategies at consulting firm CJ&N. “They’ve put their stake in the ground: We work hard to make this content, we pay people to do it—why should we give it away for free?”

Blazing a New Trail

Station online pay walls fall somewhere between very rare and nonexistent. Gannett’s KPNX is one, but it shares a site with the sibling Arizona Republic newspaper.

In Cincy, visitors to see a “9” icon next to some stories; as of January those dealing with areas such as politics, education or station investigations will live behind a pay wall. WCPO has been stockpiling resources to make its content stand out, luring name reporters from local newspapers and business journals. “People are absolutely taking notice of the marked change in quality of our on-air and online product,” says Adam Symson, Scripps chief digital officer.

It’s nearly time to get a return on the investment. Brian Lawlor, Scripps senior VP of television, mentions local broadcasters’ fight for retrans cash nearly a decade ago as an inspiration for digging out new revenue streams. “Other general managers may mock us, saying we’re alienating audience and driving them right to [the competition],” he says. “We clearly don’t see that as the case.”

ABC affiliate WCPO has tough competition in Scripps’ home market, most notably from Sinclair’s WKRC. But digital media vets say the group will derive valuable learnings from the initiative and gather vital information on users. “It’s worth a try, if only for the education you get from this kind of experiment,” says digital media consultant Steve Safran.

Next Year’s Model

Scripps execs would not share information on pricing, projections or a groupwide rollout. Some say the group is nuts for trying. “You put up a pay wall and you die,” says one GM, speaking generally on the concept.

Regardless, just about everyone in local TV is watching closely to see how the experiment plays out. Elmer Baldwin, president and CEO of Internet Broadcasting, says there’s interest among some of IB’s station clients in rolling out paid models—perhaps as early as the second half of 2014. “I applaud the innovation,” he says. “The entire TV industry—technology people, business people—we’re all watching it.”

Rich Boehne, Scripps chairman/president/ CEO, envisions a local media landscape with a mere one or two true digital players per market. He says the subscription model puts WCPO in a position to be one. “We have a very high risk tolerance,” he says. “Being first ones to run over the hill is not a big problem for us.”