Hartford Courant launches new website, sans pay-wall

Struggling to define its place and make a profit in a rapidly shifting media landscape, the Hartford Courant, Connecticut’s largest newspaper, launched a new website last week.

The website, CourantPlus.com, requires free registration and is an addition, not a replacement, to the paper’s longstanding free website, courant.com. Advertised by the Courant as free of clutter and ubiquitous advertisements, the new site emphasizes more in-depth political and business news.

Some see the site as a forerunner to a pay-wall site, where readers will need to buy subscriptions for access, including Matt DeRienzo, group editor for Journal Register Company’s Connecticut papers, who described the Courant’s experiment as a “version of a paid-access website” on his blog. The Courant’s owner, the Tribune Company, however, insisted that the long-term direction of the site is undetermined.

“[The Courant is] in the process of testing a variety of different approaches to meet [its] customer, reader and advertiser needs,” Gary Weitman, a senior vice president for corporate relations at the Tribune Company, said Wednesday, “so I wouldn’t make any predictions about where it’s going to go.”

Although Rich Graziano, the Courant’s publisher, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, he insisted that the Courant was yet to implement a pay-wall in an email to journalism nonprofit Poynter. Graziano instead called the site “market research.”

The Courant, like other metropolitan and local newspapers across the country, has struggled in recent years to retain readers in light of the proliferation of news on the Internet, with its circulation down over 26 percent from 179,066 in 2006 to 131,564 per week this year according to figures from the Alliance for Audited Media and the Harvard Business Journal. In 2011, the paper laid off an undisclosed number of employees. This came after long-running financial difficulties whittled the paper’s news staff down to 135 in 2009 from a high of 400 in 1994.

Bennie DiNardo, a deputy managing editor for multimedia at the Boston Globe, said CourantPlus.com bears a strong resemblance to the Boston Globe’s pay-wall website, BostonGlobe.com, which offers a potential model for the Courant to follow. Launched in the fall of 2011, the site shifted much of the paper’s strongest journalism from Boston.com, where it had previously presented articles in a cluttered but free manner much as Courant.com now does.

“The content from BostonGlobe.com is from the Globe, and that’s the journalism from our newsroom,” said Ellen Clegg, executive director of communications for the paper. “Boston.com is more of a public portal, with short tidbits, and we’re working on differentiating the two brands further.”

More than a year later, BostonGlobe.com is largely considered a success, with 28,000 online-only subscribers, according to DiNardo. DiNardo added that although many are still resistant to paying for online content, the prospect of having to close the paper, which the Boston Globe faced in 2009, led readers to support the move.

“People value the journalism,” DiNardo said, noting that print newspapers are still the most reliable source of news for metropolitan and small-town communities alike. “The idea of not having really excellent journalism caused a lot of people to come out and say, ‘We’ll pay more, we’ll support you.’”

At present, the web presence of the New Haven Register, the Elm City’s only printed daily, consists of a single site where it provides all of its content free of charge, albeit with advertisements covering the top and sides of virtually every page.

Nevertheless, financial difficulties continue to plague the Register. The Journal Register Company, which owns the Register, has filed for bankruptcy twice in the past four years. Last year, the Register laid off 105 employees when it closed its printing press, outsourcing the operation to the Courant. The move was part of the Journal Register’s “Digital First” plan, which attempted to shift scarce resources to writing and editing from printing and the labor it required.

DeRienzo, Register publisher Tom Wiley and the Journal Register Company did not respond to repeated request for comment Wednesday.

Despite the struggles of local print outlets, DiNardo emphasized that newspapers, through effective market research, can attract readers and in turn regain profitability.

“Readership in print is down, but people overall are consuming more news than ever on all of their devices. In a world where there are hundreds of sources, the fact that you’re the trusted source makes you more valuable, not less valuable,” Dinardo said. “There are not that many sources of information coming from New Haven, so the New Haven Register has a tremendous opportunity.”

The Courant is the oldest continuously published paper in the U.S.

Correction: Feb. 28

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Matt DeRienzo.

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