In late October, Newsday, the Long Island daily that the Dolans bought for $650 million, put its web site, newsday.com, behind a pay wall. The paper was one of the first non-business newspapers to take the plunge by putting up a pay wall, so in media circles it has been followed with interest. Could its fate be a sign of what others, including The New York Times, might expect?
So, three months later, how many people have signed up to pay $5 a week, or $260 a year, to get unfettered access to newsday.com?
The answer: 35 people. As in fewer than three dozen. As in a decent-sized elementary-school class.
That astoundingly low figure was revealed in a newsroom-wide meeting last week by publisher Terry Jimenez when a reporter asked how many people had signed up for the site. Mr. Jimenez didn’t know the number off the top of his head, so he asked a deputy sitting near him. He replied 35.
Michael Amon, a social services reporter, asked for clarification.
“I heard you say 35 people,” he said, from Newsday‘s auditorium in Melville. “Is that number correct?”
Mr. Jimenez nodded.
The web site redesign and relaunch cost the Dolans $4 million, according to Mr. Jimenez. With those 35 people, they’ve grossed about $9,000.
In that time, without question, web traffic has begun to plummet, and, certainly, advertising will follow as well.
Of course, there are a few caveats. Anyone who has a newspaper subscription is allowed free access; anyone who has Optimum Cable, which is owned by the Dolans and Cablevision, also gets it free. Newsday representatives claim that 75 percent of Long Island either has a subscription or Optimum Cable.
“We’re the freebie newsletter that comes with your HBO,” sniffed one Newsday reporter.
Mr. Jimenez was in no mood to apologize. “That’s 35 more than I would have thought it would have been,” said Mr. Jimenez to the assembled staff, according to five interviews with Newsday staffers.
“Given the number of households in our market that have access to Newsday’s Web site as a result of other subscriptions, it is no surprise that a relatively modest number have chosen the pay option,” said a Cablevision spokeswoman.
Nevertheless, traffic has fallen. In December, the web site had 1.5 million unique visits, a drop from 2.2 million in October, according to Nielsen Media Online.
In the short time that the Dolans have owned Newsday, it’s been a circus. When they were closing the deal to buy the paper in May 2008, they had their personal spokesman scream at an editor who assigned a reporter to visit the Dolans, seeking comment; there was a moment back in January of last year, when Newsday editor John Mancini walked out of the newsroom because of a dispute over how the paper was handling the Knicks; in the summer, the paper refused to run ads by Verizon, a rival; Tim Knight, the paper’s publisher, and John Mancini, the editor, eventually both left.
The paper, which traditionally has been a powerful money maker, lost $7 million in the first three quarters of last year, according to Mr. Jimenez at last week’s meeting.
In October, the web site relaunched and was redesigned. One of the principals behind the redesign is Mr. Mancini’s replacement, editor Debby Krenek.
To say the least, the project has not been a newsroom favorite. “The view of the newsroom is the web site sucks,” said one staffer.
“It’s an abomination,” said another.
And now the paper is in the middle of a labor dispute in which it wants to extract a 10 percent pay cut from all employees. The cut was turned down by a lopsided vote of 473 to 10, this past Sunday.
Things are bleak in old Hellville, the pet nickname some reporters have established for life on Long Island.
“In the meeting with Terry, half the questions weren’t about labor issues, but about why isn’t this feature in the paper anymore?” said one reporter. “People are still mad about losing our national correspondents, our foreign bureaus and the prestige of working for a great newspaper. The last thing we had was a living wage, being one of the few papers where you’re paid well. And to have that last thing yanked from you? It’s made people so mad.”
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