A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s then-recently-launched PG+ and how the model might be able to save print. The model of PG+ was simple — take a couple of its most popular blogs, most notably sportswriter Dejan Kovacevic’s PBC Blog, and shift it behind a $3.99/month (or $36/year) pay wall. My assessment at the time was as follows:
From my experience, the so-called ‘freemium’ model seems to be working for the P-G. Why? Because there’s genuine value to the experience. While superficial sports coverage and local news can be had easily and for free, the type of in-depth information that their paid site provides is well-worth the $4/month. In addition, I’m beginning to feel a sense of responsibility to the newspaper industry — like public radio, I know that these media are needed in a strong, well-informed democratic society (an interesting article suggested anecdotal evidence that the decline of the newspaper industry is having some impact on campaigns). While I think as much information as possible should be free, I have come to terms with the fact that I need to contribute my share.
Within the last year, much progress had been made at PG+. The site generally abandoned the blogs focused on subjects outside of sports (it seems subscribers were overwhelming consuming sports content) and Dejan Kovacevic was promoted to a post where he would write for all sports as well as run the PG+ operation. I had adjusted my morning routine accordingly, reading his pre-dawn PG+ blog post as I woke up each morning.
About three weeks ago, Colin Dunlap, the reporter who replaced Kovacevic on the Pirates beat, abruptly resigned. Last week, Dejan resigned after 25-plus years with the Post-Gazette to move to the competing paper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Within a month, a good bit of the value I had gotten out of the PG+ subscription had been lost. In addition, the print side lost a good bit of its top-tier baseball talent just as the Pirates are enjoying re-surging interest as the team flirts with .500.
From a purely marketing perspective, this has been fascinating to watch. Fans at the PG+ have used the comments function to threaten to leave or ask for instructions on how to cancel their subscriptions. Other members are wringing their hands at the possibility of supporting the Tribune-Review for reasons that have nothing to do with sports coverage. And Dejan Kovacevic, after championing the PG+ for more than a year despite its many faults, has taken to tweeting “site is free, comments easy to use” when referring to his new home.
In order for the PG+ to survive, it has to stay valuable to its rabid sports fan consumer. In its first chance to do so, it failed, as Dejan broke a story about a Pirates trade at 10:23 PM last night, about an hour and a half before the PG+ posted the news. Experience matters and, at this point, the PG+ doesn’t have the team to break those kinds of stories.
A year ago, I asked if premium can save print. I strongly believe the answer is yes, but it has to be able to provide exceptional value, like exclusivity, in order to be viable. I plan on continuing my PG+ subscription but worry that there will be enough defectors that the Post-Gazette decides there isn’t enough value in the model to keep at it. Let’s hope that there continues to be excellent sports coverage at the P-G and that they’re able to find the talent to make the PG+ a worthwhile investment.