A friend, Jon Maples, e-mailed the other day with a question. "Is it my imagination, or are newspaper sites suddenly requiring registration to read the news?" he writes, citing the Web sites of the Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News. "I have to say that the Dallas registration was so intrusive and required so many fields that I gave up."
What's going on?
Mandatory registration is making the rounds at major online news sites, as media companies try to peel away the Internet's cloak of anonymity and build closer relationships with their customers. But it's a tricky dance, and one that risks alienating news junkies when they bump into registration walls as they surf from site to site.
Registration also throws up roadblocks for weblogs, community news sites, discussion boards and e-mail newsletters that point to news articles.
"Two years ago if you asked anybody in the industry, the response would have been overwhelmingly negative," says Elaine Zinngrabe, executive producer of Latimes.com. "In 2002 we've come to realize that it's a business necessity. Consumers are becoming savvy about opt-out and privacy policies, and they've come to expect this sort of customer interaction."
Adds Tribune Interactive exec Mike Silver: "The Internet is becoming less anonymous."
While a dozen mostly small online newspapers now charge for access to their sites, other media companies have taken a middle route, gating off their content until users provide personal information, such as name, address, interests and whether they subscribe to the print newspaper.
These sites now require registration:
- The New York Times on the Web has required registration since the site launched in January 1996. The Times has topped 10 million active registered users.
- Latimes.com has had more than 500,000 people sign up since it launched its registration program April 25.
- Chicagotribune.com has had 368,000 people register at its site since March and another 96,000 at ChicagoSports. Those who register at sister site Latimes.com can access the Tribune sites with just a user name and password.
- Belo Interactive began rolling out a section-by-section registration program at its newspaper and broadcast sites last year and just hit the million-registration mark. Some 660,000 of those came at Dallasnews.com, a number higher than the Dallas Morning News' weekday print circulation, though lower than its Sunday circulation or daily readership. Belo, too, allows users to access all its sites with a single log-on and password.
- WSJ.com's free OpinionJournal.com has begun asking for registration information -- only an e-mail address is required -- to read Today's Featured Article, the piece from the Wall Street Journal's editorial page.
- A handful of smaller papers, such as North Dakota's Fargo Forum, require full registration.
When you register, the news site stores a cookie on your computer's hard drive so that when return to the site it remembers who you are and opens the door. (For more on cookies, see this explanation on Dispatch.com.) When you use a different computer or browser, however, you have to log in again.
A fairly minor hassle for news surfers. But registration also throws up roadblocks for weblogs, community news sites, discussion boards and e-mail newsletters that point to news articles.
Slashdot, the influential tech news site, on Sunday reaffirmed its policy against linking to any site that requires registration, with the exception of the New York Times. Michael Sims, a Slashdot editor, says, "Look at it from our point of view: If we link to a site where most of our readers have to fill out an intrusive registration process to read the story we linked to, what's going to occur? Most of them aren't going to do it; they'll come back to Slashdot and instead of writing some sort of useful comment they'll write a complaint. Someone will cut-and-paste the story text into a comment. So everyone loses. The newspaper doesn't get the readership. Slashdot readers write complaints instead of commenting on the story. And finally, everyone ends up reading the story in a comment posted on our site instead of the original site."
Twin forces driving the trend
What's spurring the trend toward registration? Media executives cited two recurring themes: the need to form a closer relationship with their readers, and the potential for added revenue.
"Newspapers want to extend services to their customers on the Web beyond just publishing their content," says Mike Silver, vice president of strategy and development for Tribune Interactive. "If you're a loyal customer of Newsday, you should be able to get services on the Web, and the only way to do that is if we know who you are."
Eric Christensen, vice president and general manager of Belo Interactive in Dallas, says, "The debate in the industry continues to rage as far as paid content vs. registration. As an organization, we don't believe there's a substantial opportunity to charge for our content online, but we do believe it's reasonable to expect users to provide some information to access this valued content. We want a way to monetize that database information, and we plan to be pretty aggressive about it."
Before we dive into issues related to money and privacy, let's look at what kind of information media companies are capturing about their online audience.
Outside ratings services like Media Metrix and NetRatings offer some tantalizing hints about a Web site's audience, but their sampling methods provide only limited approximations of visitor demographics. MORI Research just released an in-depth study that profiled online newspaper readers in eight markets, drawing interesting conclusions about user demographics, media habits and the fluctuating audiences between daytime office workers and evening general users. (The report, now free, will be available to the public for a small fee starting in early July; it will remain free to members of the Newspaper Association of America.)
But when push comes to shove, online newspapers have largely been flying blind about who's coming to their own sites and why. Until now.
On to Belo...
Senior Editor J.D. Lasica hosts a page of online resources on his home page at jdlasica.com. He also writes a popular weblog, New Media Musings.