The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel may be struggling along with the rest of the media industry, but there’s one bright spot: sports coverage – more specifically, Green Bay Packers coverage.
The impact of the Packers is huge in driving both newspaper sales and traffic online, where the sports page gets more hits than the home page. But the paper has also been successful – in a nationally notable way – at finding new ways to make money in the new media era.
First, there’s Packer Plus – a weekly print tabloid sold 40 weeks a year by subscription and on newsstands. It features a mix of material culled from the daily paper’s coverage and exclusive content. Online, there’s also Packer Insider – bundling articles, analysis, charts and other features behind a pay wall.
The paper also sends out a free e-mail newsletter, Packer Plus Online, to anyone who signs up. It goes out twice weekly during the season, less frequently in the offseason, and helps promote Packer Insider stories.
Packer Plus was originally a product of the morning Milwaukee Sentinel, launched before the 1995 merger with the Journal. A sibling publication for UW-Madison fans, Badger Plus, didn’t last. Packer Insider was introduced in 2001.
The price for Packer Plus varies by location: Inside the JS circulation area, it’s $19.95 a year and delivered by carrier. Farther away, the annual rate is $64.95 and includes a Packer Insider subscription. Purchased on its own, Packer Insider costs subscribers $44.95.
Nationally, Packer Insider is unique. The American Press Institute, a newspaper trade group, put it at “the top of the list” of paid, premium content in the newspaper industry. No other paper has that kind of premium coverage for sports. Even the Packers’ hometown paper, Gannett’s Green Bay Press-Gazette, puts all of its Packers coverage online for free.
The formula for Insider has evolved since its launch. Less-valued features, such as blogs and photo galleries, are now free, while Insider focuses more on deeper analysis and live chats with writers.
The paper won’t disclose exact traffic; estimates range from 3,000 to 6,000 subscribers. Not surprisingly, insiders say subscriptions rise when the team’s doing well. Packer Plus has 12,000 subscribers, according to Garry D. Howard, JS assistant managing editor for sports.
The strength of both premium news products rests on the paper’s huge investment in Packers coverage, with as many as five writers assigned to following the team. Topping the lineup is Bob McGinn, whose encyclopedic knowledge of football and the Packers, and heavily analytical coverage of games, is unparalleled nationally.
During football season, McGinn spends 15 hours a day, six and seven days a week, watching video of each week’s game to deliver readers a miles-deep breakdown of how the play unfolded, then more hours working the phones to call sources all over the country to preview the next game. Key stories, like his weekly postgame report card, run in print but not online, giving those who don’t buy the daily paper a reason to buy Packer Insider.
“McGinn is the best sports beat writer I have ever seen,” says Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor at The Wall Street Journal and a Green Bay native who’s subscribed to Insider since it started. “And I’ve seen a lot. I wish my political analysis were half as good,” adds the Pulitzer Prize winner.
Plus and Insider are, in large part, aimed at distant readers like Gigot, who notes from his New York office, “You can’t get a lot of coverage of the Pack out here.” Howard says much of the readership of both products comes from outside the five-county Milwaukee metro area. Readers who took part in a recent Insider online chat with McGinn signed in from as far away as Germany and Belgium. And back in Wisconsin, the audience is “ravenous for sports news – they just can’t get enough,” Howard says.
Or as McGinn observed in a talk at the Milwaukee Press Club last February, “We’re the only paper in the country that can charge $44.95 a year for coverage of the team.”
Indeed, Packers fans may be unique in their fervor. Howard says he’s talked with counterparts around the country who’d love to emulate Insider’s success, but as he notes, “If this is the Cleveland Browns, I’m not so sure I’m pulling this off.”
Even more difficult would be using the Insider formula – founded on “experts covering our biggest beat in sports,” in Howard’s words – to cover subjects like politics and government. Gigot’s own Wall Street Journal has succeeded with stock market information. But that, like Packer Insider, is a rare exception.
“We’re all struggling with the creative destruction brought to newspapers’ business models by the Internet,” says Gigot. “You have to find content valuable enough for people to pay for. The Journal Sentinel’s Packers coverage is a real illustration of value added.
“Don’t tell the publisher,” Gigot continues, “but I’d probably pay a lot more for it. It brightens my day.”