When The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., began planning its digital subscriber strategy earlier this year, executives wanted a service that did more than grow online revenues: It had to protect Sunday print readership and set the stage for ancillary products for mobile users.

And it had to be put together - from scratch - in five months.

"We wanted to continue to have a touch point with all of our customers," Brent Booth, The Commercial Appeal's director of online services, said about the primary goal of the metered initiative, which launched in early November.

"We wanted to follow a holistic approach, with an application suite and then a paywall, and then connect the two together. We didn't see success in just putting up a paywall. We wanted it to be a bundled approach and to create a premium experience that didn't previously exist."

The Commercial Appeal's digital subscription is similar to the tactic followed by many papers in that it permits consumers to view a set number of articles - in this case 10 - before being asked to pay. Print subscribers receive free access following registration while non-subs are being charged $9.99 per month for online and mobile app access. The paper is also offering a 99-cent day-pass.

Developed own approach

Where The Commercial Appeal's model differs, however, is how the paper crafted its strategy, using an internally developed foundation of apps and platforms - dubbed a "mobile publishing ecosystem" - that allowed it to meet its goal of reinforcing its print product. The infrastructure, based on software from Seattle-based Syncronex and San Jose, Calif.-based Whiz Technologies and designed by digital consultant Guy Tasaka, is engineered to be open, flexible, and versatile enough to be used by other E.W. Scripps properties.

"It does something different" than what most other newspapers are doing in adopting prepackaged e-commerce software from vendors such as Google, Clickshare Inc. and Press+, Booth said.

It's more akin to what much bigger newspapers, such as The New York Times and Boston Globe, have done with their digital services.

"We wanted to take this and own it, and push the envelope," Booth said. "Either go big or go home.

"We are a good brand in the community and we will push this initiative forward."

Tasaka, who cut his digital teeth 16 years ago with The New York Times, said Scripps and The Commercial Appeal "wanted a long-term solution and not just the flavor of the month" for its initiative. "They knew where they wanted to go; they weren't quite sure how to get there," he said.

Tasaka said the first step was to find the software that would underpin the initiative. Whiz Technologies, an India developer of mobile distribution software, provided part of the foundation with a middleware platform that permitted The Commercial Appeal to author apps for tablet computers and smartphones distinct from the paper's website.

No replica

"We did not want a replica app. We want something that would encourage consumers to create a digital account, and we wanted a navigation system that was very simple to use," Tasaka said. Another plus: the app integrated with The Commercial Appeal's Tera CMS, allowing content to freely travel from server to users' devices without manual intervention.

(Editor's note: The Commercial Appeal is migrating from Tera to Saxotech's CMS in 2012 to conform to Scripps' Cloud 9 implementation of its editorial and content management software, see News & Tech, June/July 2011.)

Syncronex, meantime, provided the middleware necessary to talk to The Commercial Appeal's circulation management software, permitting subscriber authentication and management. By developing its own e-commerce engine, The Commercial Appeal saved software acquisition costs and, equally important, avoided commission fees while retaining control of its subscribers.

Both platforms are accessed remotely, eliminating the need for Commercial Appeal staff to manage the software internally.

Readers buying monthly or yearly access to digital products will have their data managed by Syncronex; those buying day passes will go through iTunes. Tasaka said The Commercial Appeal was willing to pay Apple's 30 percent commission charge for those buying 24-hour access.

Once the software foundation was in place, The Commercial Appeal turned its attention to how it would market the digital initiative.

Keeping customers

"Retention was key," Tasaka said. "We wanted to offer the digital product at no charge to print subscribers. This makes the print subscription more valuable and as you create ancillary product you are creating an even greater package."

Papers who charge print subscribers to access their digital services are making a mistake, Tasaka said. "Even if you only charge a penny, you're adding friction, and if you get 10,000 readers to kick in $2 per month, that won't offset the drop in print subscribers who are mad about having to pay more for digital."

The Commercial Appeal, in fact, expects its digital plan to increase print subscription. "We modeled a 1 percent lift," Tasaka said. "A lost copy, on the other hand (as a result of a disgruntled print subscriber asked to pay more for digital access) is lost forever. You don't get it back."

The paper's mobile offerings encompass both Android and Apple OS platforms, for smartphones and tablets. The daily also engineered software for 7-inch displays, including Amazon's Kindle Fire, as well as other HTML5-client implementations, Tasaka said. "All-access means all-access," he said. "We don't believe in ‘or,' but in ‘and.' We have an HTML5 design, because we don't know what the next big tablet might be."

Good reaction

The Commercial Appeal's Booth said that in the weeks leading up to the debut of the subscriber plan, the paper carefully promoted its strategy.

"Print subscribers get free access, so we wanted to make sure they knew they were being rewarded. We wanted to protect our Sunday print readership, so we made it possible for consumers to subscribe only to Sunday and still get access to our other digital content," he said. "Sunday readership is worth a lot more than any digital ad revenue we can get.

"The key is the bundle. When people log onto the subscription page (for the digital package) we will promote our print subscription."

Scripps will evaluate The Commercial Appeal's approach, Booth said, and will then determine how, or if, it may be mirrored by other Scripps' sites assessing their own digital subscriber services.

Currently, only one other Scripps paper, the Wichita Falls (Texas) Times Record News, manages access to its online content, using Press+.

"What we're doing is scalable and by using Whiz as middleware, we are not dependent on using a single system," Booth said.