(also posted at AimGroup.com)
Some truly sad news in the past week: Bluffton Today, the start-from-scratch, let’s-try-a-new-model newspaper in Bluffton, S.C., is going to start charging for home delivery of its daily newspaper, srtarting Dec. 1. For three years, Bluffton Today has been delivered to every household, free. The announcement is here.
Much of the attention on Bluffton Today, of course, has been its heavy focus on developing a voice for the citizenry of Bluffton. By opening up blogs, photos and other contributions to local residents, BlufftonToday.com became the center of local dialogue. One of the more powerful learnings of this model was the emergence of a community of local moms in Bluffton, a learning that led directly to the launch of local moms’ sites by newspapers across the U.S. in the past two years.
And the online-print loop was also innovative. The website is almost entirely community-driven, while the printed newspaper is a combination of professional journalism and community voices.
Still, it was the saturation-home-delivery concept that I personally found intriguing. Bluffton had the potential to test a game-changing story for advertisers: in a time of increasing fragmentation of both media and attention spans, we’re going to guarantee that your message gets into every home in this attractive area, every day. Since advertising pays the bills at any newspaper, local advertisers’ perception of value is key. The model of saturation delivery is relatively widespread among weeklies; it’s rare among dailies. With Bluffton being a high-demographic area attractive to advertisers, and combined with the intense community focus of the publication, it could be the perfect test case for the concept. Alas, it won’t be.
But the saddest thing of all is this: not only will the newspaper start charging for printed copies, it also will begin charging for access to parts of BlufftonToday.com. The community’s response is predictably harsh, as seen in this exchange on the site between the editor and readers. Note the people who feel they’ve helped build this community resource through their contributions of content, and now they’ll be charged just to use it.
So the experiment is over, and Bluffton Today will become like other newspapers, including its struggle to survive.
As newspapers have flailed around in recent years, Bluffton Today was a source of inspiration and hope. So the end of this experiment is not just an isolated incident. I fear it could be a significant setback to those who continue to experiment within newspapers, not only adding to their own doubts, but also undermining what little support they get from their sponsor organizations.
To them, all we can say is: Please don’t give up.