The Star Tribune's lenders have nominated new board members to lead the newspaper after it emerges from bankruptcy, perhaps in a few weeks.
Those lenders will own the paper, unless a buyer for the Star Tribune emerges soon. One of the proposed board members is spawning speculation the Star Tribune may try to make its online readers pay a fee for its online content.
The prospective board member creating the buzz about the Star Tribune perhaps charging for content is Gordon Crovitz. Crovitz is a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, which is about the only major newspaper able to charge for its online news service. Crovitz also is a leader of Journalism Online, an organization trying to figure out how newspapers can charge readers for online content, without driving them away.
"If he's joining the board, I'd be surprised if the Strib didn't then test the waters of paid content," said newspaper industry analyst and former Pioneer Press managing editor Ken Doctor. "Crovitz and Journalism Online [are] the center of attention for the news industry this year.
"Paid content has been the mantra all year. But it's going to be in 2010, that we're really going to see the tests."
Crovitz and the Star Tribune's current owners did not respond to requests for comment.
Newspapers have been plagued by falling circulation and profits. Many prominent papers, such as the Philadephia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune and the Star Tribune, have landed in bankruptcy. Newspapers are desperate to figure out a way to turn their fortunes around, especially by divining a way to make money off their Web sites which have long been free.
“If he's joining the board, I'd be surprised if the Strib didn't then test the waters of paid content.”Ken Doctor, newspaper analyst
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, said no paper -- other than the Wall Street Journal -- seems to be able to charge for its content. No other paper arguably has what the Journal has; specialized, coveted content, a readership of well-heeled investors and a big national distribution.
Edmonds said there's a lot of talk by other papers about charging for content but little action.
"You don't really see too many willing to take the leap," Edmonds said. "And I do think that reflects that there's still quite an element of risk involved of losing audience and losing ad dollars."
The Pioneer Press, the other major daily newspaper in the Twin Cities, has been thinking about charging for content, but it has no plans to try charging anytime soon.
"The problem is a lot of newspapers are finding is nobody has done it successfully," said Ryan Huschka, who oversees the online efforts of the Pioneer Press. "So, there isn't a model to take and sort of nurture and grow and reinvent."
Of course, it's hard to charge for content if your rivals don't, and the Star Tribune currently faces a lot of local news providers who don't charge for content, in addition to the Pioneer Press.
"Can the Star Tribune actually convince people that it has stuff worth paying for online in this vibrant media market we have here?" said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. "I don't know the answer to that. I'm not sure I'd do it, to be candid, and I'm a junkie. I read this stuff, but whether I would be willing to pay for it, I think it would remain to be seen."
Of course, subscription revenue is just one source of income for newspapers online, there's also advertising. For newspapers, the key problem is that the internet has produced a lot of competition for advertising dollars.
Newspaper analyst Ken Doctor said ads are more important for newspapers than checks from subscribers.
"If you want to maintain a for-profit enterprise, advertising is going to be where you have to look," Doctor said.
Doctor said newspapers aren't getting a good slice of online advertising dollars.
"There's $24 billion there," said Doctor. "The problem for newspaper companies is they're not getting much of it. They're getting, at most $3.5 billion."
Other nominees for the Star Tribune board include former Twin Cities banking executive William Farley, equity firm partner Michael Sweeney and Michael Reed. Reed is CEO of a firm that owns about 90 daily newspapers.
A hearing on the Star Tribune's reorganization is scheduled for Sept. 17, in federal bankruptcy court in New York. The Star Tribune expects to emerge from bankruptcy protection on Sept. 28.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)