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March 4, 2009 > Newsday might end free Web access for some

Newsday might end free Web access for some

By Deborah Yao, AP Business Writer

Feb 27 - Cablevision Systems Corp. is mulling plans to pull the plug on free online access for its Long Island daily Newsday, but details are sketchy as to how the cable operator expects to succeed in a strategy that has flummoxed the newspaper industry.

Tom Rutledge, Cablevision's chief operating officer, told analysts in a conference call on Thursday that the company plans to ``end distribution of free Web content and make our news-gathering capabilities a service for our customers.''

Publisher Tim Knight said more details will come over the next few months. He said Newsday's Web site is being transformed into ``an enhanced, locally focused cable service that we believe will become an important benefit for Newsday and Cablevision customers.''

With an average daily circulation of 377,517, Newsday is the nation's 10th top-selling newspaper and the largest one serving New York's Long Island. Bethpage, N.Y.-based Cablevision, whose service area includes Long Island, bought Newsday last summer for $650 million from Tribune Co., which was looking to generate cash to help pay down debt.

Cablevision said this week that Newsday, like many other newspapers, is suffering from a downturn in advertising, particularly in classifieds.

Cablevision executives have said they are aware of the paper's current difficulties, but believe they can make it work by integrating print into their cable TV business.

On Jan. 1, Cablevision launched a cable channel where viewers can shop for auto deals called Optimum Autos. Newsday's print and online content use the same branding.

As for Newsday.com, one idea being floated is to make online access a free perk for Cablevision's cable TV subscribers, according to a person close to the situation who asked not to be named because the person was not authorized to divulge details of any plans.

The company likes to give free value-added services to its cable customers to retain them in the face of stiff competition from phone and satellite TV providers. These include certain Wi-Fi access outdoors that Cablevision is rolling out.

But the door is open to charge non-subscribers online access to Newsday.com, although plans are not definitive and could change.

Newsday had 2.54 million unique visitors online in January, up 16 percent from the same month last year, according to comScore Inc. The number of pages viewed rose by 88 percent to 39 million.

Many newspapers charge for access to their archives and sometimes special features such as crossword puzzles, but rarely do they charge to read current news stories.

Steve Outing, online columnist for Editor and Publisher, think it's a ``lousy'' idea for regional and metro papers to charge for Web content because they erect barriers to easy Internet surfing and the content tends not to be specialized enough for people to want to pay for it. Readers will go elsewhere to get local information that may not be as comprehensive, but good enough.

``My prediction on that, especially in the New York market, is their Web site traffic will probably plummet to almost nothing,'' Outing said.

That doesn't stop papers from considering it.

Earlier this month, the executive editor of The New York Times hinted that the paper might charge for access to some of its online content, two years after scrapping a program to charge fees for access to parts of its Web site, including op-ed columnists and archives dating back to 1987.

Hearst Corp.'s San Francisco Chronicle, which is in danger of shutting down for good, also is considering charging for access to sections of its Web site.

The Christian Science Monitor is developing a daily electronic newsletter that will carry a fee, and U.S. News and World Report will charge $24.95 a year for weekly digital downloads.

News Corp.'s The Wall Street Journal is one publication able to charge for online subscriptions. The Journal offers paying subscribers access to financial stories that it says are unavailable elsewhere, and its readers can often book the costs as a business expense.

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