News organizations are increasingly moving their operations online, leaving local newspapers to figure out how to pay for reporters and editors as online ad revenue shrinks. But the publisher of the Burlington Free Press, a Gannett-owned newspaper, thinks it has found its sweet spot with a new print format and online business model that it hopes will bring the 185-year-old newspaper into the digital age.
It’s still early outside the Burlington Free Press offices as people on Church Street rush to work. Many of them thumb their sleek smart phones as they go.
Inside the press room, publisher Jim Fogler is looking over the recently rebuilt 45-year-old printing press, like a proud father. "When you put all the inks together, to create an image, it’s just a wild process to watch," Fogler says.
Although he’s been the publisher of the Free Press for just two years, Fogler is both nostalgic about the newspaper’s past and decidedly vigilant about its future. "We’re a part of history here, and it’s just really nice to still be here."
The Free Press has reinvested $2.4 million in this gritty Goss Metroliner. The new tabloid format – or, as Fogler likes to call it, a compact smart edition – gives the newspaper color on every page.
As the regional newspaper industry continues to implode, the Free Press has introduced this new format as well as an online paywall. It will now cost you $12 per month to access the full newspaper on the internet.
Sitting in the newsroom, Fogler says the Free Press can no longer afford to give away its content for free. "We need to innovate as a company," he says. "We haven’t done that for years. The online piece is changing the dynamic and that’s one of the reasons we’re going to the new model."
That new model will shake up how the editorial team covers and packages the news.
"This hasn’t been a breaking news vehicle for years," says Free Press editor Michael Townsend, picking up one of the new compact smart editions. "We’re very competitive online, and once we press it no one can top us."
Townsend says the print edition of the Free Press will focus on Vermont’s sense of place and the region’s texture, while the online edition will focus on breaking news.
Online ad revenue makes up just 26 percent of the newspaper’s total revenue. And nationwide online ad revenue is dropping each year. But the Free Press is confident its new online subscription model can sustain a 33-person local newsroom.
And after making a $2.4 million investment in that 45-year-old old press, publisher Jim Fogler says the most frustrating thing is when his newspaper is criticized for not being local enough.
"We are part of this community," he says. "We have 145 employees. We live, work and play here."
From last Thursday through Monday, the Free Press delivered complimentary editions of the paper to give readers the opportunity to try it out. With its online news going behind a paywall, the Free Press hopes single-copy sales go up.