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STAR FINALLY LAUNCHES PAYWALL, TO GLITCHES AND INITIAL SUBSCRIBER FRUSTRATION

It had been so long since the Arizona Daily Star started making preparations for launching a paywall, that it was easy to forget those conversations even existed. But Sunday, after years, literally years of trying to make something operational, Tucson's daily finally announced a structure for its subscription-based service.

Well, sort of.

Based on the way the digital platform rolled out, it didn't seem as if the Daily Star really wanted any online subscribers at all. First, new Star head honcho Chase Rankin introduced readers to the impending changes in digital access in a letter in Sunday's newspaper.

But in what amounted to little more than a PR fluff piece about the awesomeness of the paper, he managed to find the time, twice, to hype "the Star's standing as the largest provider of news, advertising and information about Tucson," and "the largest news-gathering organization in Southern Arizona," but failed to mention the two pieces of information most key to readers: how the hell much, and how to sign up.

That was a tad easier to navigate for readers of the Sunday print edition, since there were accompanying instructions and a multifaceted price plan for the paywall in other stories. For those who access the Star online, that wasn't nearly as convenient to access.

"This also marks the day that we are introducing a subscription model called Full Access," the Rankin story proclaimed. "Print subscribers will continue to have full access to all of the Star's valuable digital content when and how you want it. Nonsubscribers will have limited access to local content before they are asked to subscribe.

The only change for subscribers is that you will need to create a login and password to continue to have full access to the huge range of digital content. It's simple to do."

Not so fast. If by simple, one means full of frustrating first-day glitches, then yes, it was "simple to do." In the midst of the newspaper pronouncing the rollout, those who attempted to sign up to the digital platform were stonewalled by code errors. Part of the braggadocio surrounded the easy-to-access set-up for subscribers, but when many of those subscribers, some of whom had print editions to home addresses and telephone numbers the Star had on file for decades, tried to create accounts, the system shut them out, which led to this unfortunate addendum to Rankin's public relations proclamation in the comments section.

"We apologize that we are having a technical problem with activation. We are working to solve it and thank you for your patience."

Patience has been the keyword in the Star's promised paywall launch, and while glitches certainly happen and issues inevitably arise in the early stages of a new endeavor, running into snafus at the gate doesn't make it look as though the paper was particularly prepared.

It's not like there wasn't time. Behind the scenes, the Star and parent company Lee Enterprises had been pushing for a paid online subscription platform for more than three years. It expected to launch in 2011. And then that became 2012. And 2013. And by 2014, when nearly every newspaper that had pondered a paywall had long since implemented something, the Star finally jumped in the game. And then at the outset of the exciting launch, highlighted by a rah-rah speech by the president and publisher, it couldn't get the system in place to initially accept subscriptions.

Furthermore, during that entire timeframe, this was the major priority for the Star's technical staff. Understandable. This is the most important inclusion for the paper since azstarnet.com launched. But there was collateral damage. Technical staff often used work on the paywall as an excuse to delay assisting in the improvement of website functionality for tucsoncitizen.com, the Gannett-owned community blog site that Gannett conveniently eventually transitioned into a rarely-accessed archive outlet, largely because access to the site was riddled with a litany of increasingly frustrating technical issues.

But all that aside, here's the breakdown. The Star has moved its content from azstarnet.com to Tucson.com, a website Lee held in conjunction with Gannett for a number of years. The subscription model is multi-tiered.

The full-access plan is $23 a month. This tier is for print subscribers who receive the newspaper seven days a week. Allegedly, by signing in and creating an account, those folks will get full access to the online version of the publication at no additional charge.

Then there's full access for subscribers who bypass the anemic amount of content in the Monday and Tuesday print editions and get home delivery Wednesday through Sunday. That print subscription model is $22 a month, and print subscribers, again, get access to online content free.

The Star also offers a full access option for Wednesday and Sunday print subscribers, the two coupon-heavy newspaper days, at $13 a month and a $13 a month platform for all-inclusive digital-only access that includes desktop, tablet and mobile phone viewing.

Naturally, the glitches are going to get corrected, which will then give way to the more important issue. Will the public buy it? And will they buy it in a way that makes up the difference for inevitable losses in print subscriptions and the market's continuing struggles with the advertising downturn in traditional media buys?

In some markets, paywalls have worked. They've helped to buffer the losses accrued by technological changes in the industry. In others, they haven't.

"Your feedback has told us that you value the local news and information in the Star. You realize that much of our content is exclusive to the Star newsroom­—the largest news-gathering organization in Southern Arizona," said Rankin, in case you had forgotten the Star was the largest news-gathering organization in Southern Arizona, and were instead interested in trying to find out minor footnotes, like how much this costs and why it was so difficult to get your information accepted. "Our commitment to excellence remains as strong as ever. As we invest in producing the high-quality journalism you expect, I ask you to continue your investment with us."

Now that the digital fence has been constructed, we'll find out what Tucson residents really think of the daily paper.

(Editor's Note: The Tucson Local Media sites, including TucsonWeekly.com will remain paywall-free.)

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