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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Adding up the changes at PG+

Posted By on Thu, Dec 17, 2009 at 2:12 PM

So no doubt you've already read my piece on the upcoming labor talks over at the Post-Gazette, and said to yourself: "But what of PG+, the paper's exciting new online venture?"

The site is mentioned briefly in my story, but I figured that our print-edition readership -- that rabble -- wouldn't be as interested in the online stuff as you and I, dear reader.

My own PG+ fixation began way back in the summer, with a post that broke news of the site while predicting some changes that, um, never really panned out. (The paper still ain't allowing comments on news articles.) But in the early days, the pay site was pretty underwhelming. Some of the content on the "free" side was better than the "premium" stuff hidden behind the paywall.

To be honest, that's still true. But PG+ has improved. It's added the talents of Dennis Roddy, which is never a bad idea (although I would have paid a premium not to hear him sing, frankly). Rich Lord contributes occasional Grant Street items now, which are always worth a read. And in general, there's just more "there" there ... although honestly, the site has less user-generated content than I would have expected. Other than some sports-related commentary, most of the discussion I've seen taking place between users involves asking how to sign up for freebies and so on. A handful of members seem to be providing the lion's share of comments -- and none of them are even Bram Reichbaum! 

But I've been told by some Poggers that I focus too much on the site's content. A big part of the site's appeal is that subscribers can sign up for various perks -- free tickets to shows, etc. That's led to an endorsement from Virginia "PittGirl" Montanez, who recently boasted about garnering some $400 in freebies -- all thanks to a membership costing less than $4 a month. 

But maybe this isn't such a great thing from the paper's perspective. Like, maybe the reason Montanez takes home so much stuff is that there aren't a lot of other members to reward?

So I asked Chris Chamberlain, the Post-Gazette president whose many thankless duties include talking to me. Chamberlain told me that the site "is working well" and "continues to grow steadily." The number of subscribers is "not in the millions and billions," he acknowledged: "It's in the four-digit range."

I would hope so. When I first signed up for an account in September, the number of subscribers was already 430.

Chamberlain wouldn't be more precise about the subscriber base -- though he did say it skews a bit younger than the print product. And it's difficult to verify numbers now. In the early days of PG+, the system allowed you to count the number of members yourself. But that was changed shortly after my first visits to the site. Now visitors just see a random sampling of members; if there's a way to conduct a census of subscribers now, I don't know of it.

In any case, even assuming 9,999 subscribers, each paying a $4/month subscriber rate, we're talking $40,000 a month, or less than a half-million each year. Is that going to turn the paper's fortunes around?

"At this point, the answer is 'no,'" Chamberlain says. "But we did only launch this in September, and the fact that it keeps growing is encouraging." Anyway, he says, while "dollars and cents are critically important, there's a broader picture here. It's important for us to be innovating, and trying these new business models." 

Chamberlain says the site will continue to evolve. One thing, however, will not change: Despite my previous whining, the paper will not be giving free PG+ subscriptions to print subscribers.

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