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Football Fans Won't Save Newspapers


Charging for local sports content isn't a solution.


The Star Tribune in Minneapolis is hoping die-hard local football fans will help it bounce back from bankruptcy. If you want the inside scoop on the Minnesota Vikings, it will cost you $5.95 for a three-month web subscription or $19.95 for 12 months.

Access Vikings Premium says it "allows you to go deep with our beat writers, columnists, and photographers every day for additional inside information" on the region's NFL team.

The newspaper announced the subscription prices Tuesday as part of its effort to boost revenue from its website. The basic question: Can the newspaper charge for additional content without cannibalizing current offerings in its print and online editions?

This could be an opportunity for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the region's number two newspaper, to increase its free coverage of the team and grab market share.

Typically, sports fans' interest is broad and deep. But the Star Tribune's paid product seems dubious because there are many outlets offering team coverage, including, the official website of the National Football League. It's free, so why bother to pay for insights from the local paper?

Then there's local TV and radio, including sports-talk station KFAN. And no fan can live without ESPN, the oracle of all things sports-related and part of the Walt Disney Company (DIS) empire.

It appears readers are willing to pay only for top-notch web content such as business news offered by The Wall Street Journal (NWS). The New York Times (NYT) ended its paid content, TimesSelect, in 2007.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune is poised to exit bankruptcy by the end of September and clearly needs every dime it can find. The newspaper, once owned by McClatchy (MNI), filed for Chapter 11 protection in January after it ran up debt and got hammered by declining advertising revenue. Last week, a federal judge cleared its plan to emerge from bankruptcy by the end of this month.

The Star Tribune's experiment with paid content for coverage of the region's NFL team won't likely generate significant revenue and could fade away much like the newspaper's initial attempt to charge for team coverage about seven years ago.

Beat writers have a job many sports fans would kill for, but few sports reporters offer much the fans don't already know, or more to the point, think they know.

Some fans might be willing to pay for blog posts from a team's coaching staff on the theory that the defensive coordinator would offer insight on the cornerback's faux pas that cost the team the big game.

But that would undercut a newspaper's reporters and columnists, and it's not difficult to imagine that before long it would become clear the blog is written by the team's public relations department and is therefore worthless.

The fun of professional sports is being passionate about something that's absolutely trivial. True fanatics want every scrap of information and every squib of commentary. But it's not clear that they're willing to pay for material readily available elsewhere, even for the Star Tribune's bargain price of $19.95 a year.

Editor's Note: For more content on newspaper and media trends, see Newspapers' Plea: We're Still Relevant! and Why the Government Should Leave Newspapers Alone.

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