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Changes Come to The Dallas Morning News. Will They Work to the Paper’s Advantage?

Screen shot 2013-10-07 at 9.33.45 PMJust over the last couple of weeks, The Dallas Morning News has announced that they’re ditching their paywall altogether AND that they’re introducing native advertising on their web product.

First came the news that Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton, also a former DMN reporter, broke about the paper’s upcoming advertorials: “Our approach is straightforward and low-risk by serving up original, high-quality content in a contextually relevant environment sponsored by an advertising partner,” read a press release from the News.

The News‘ official explanation of the jump from traditional advertising strategies to the much-debated but increasingly popular digital native ad plans describes that its first experiment with native ads was a success (This consisted of a story run alongside the DMN’s entertainment content on the GuideLive page called “5 ways to create perfect pumpkins without carving,” written by a local candle vendor, but it appears like any other DMN editorial.)

The only thing that distinguishes this piece of content from anything else presented on dallasnews.com is a short disclaimer at the top: “This article was written for our sponsor and not by TDMN editorial staff.” I was also struck by the title of the announcement — “The Dallas Morning News Becomes Largest Newspaper in Texas to Establish Native Advertising for Consumers.”

…for consumers? I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that the motivation behind establishing native ads is ever about consumers. I don’t think it’s in their best interest or that it fosters a trusting relationship between publisher and reader; however, I know that it has proven itself to struggling news organizations, at least for the time being, as a decent, profitable solution to the “riptide” that ails — or propels forward, depending on your view — digital journalism.

End rant about native ads. (Full disclosure, I’m especially sensitive about the look and feel of the DMN changing because it’s my hometown paper and one that inspired me to pursue journalism as a career.) The new ad strategy might not be such a big deal if that were the only major change readers were seeing, but the News is taking a risk by switching up the reader experience so much at one time.

Granted, they’re dropping that pesky paywall. That should be enough to make lots of Dallas natives happy. But the alternative is to offer the DMN’s content in two forms: one that offers the whole paper online for free, and another for subscribers that offers “a more visual experience.”

This visual experience entails fewer ads (who doesn’t want to jump on that train?) and a tablet-friendly “collage display.” Think the Pinterest-feeling, large thumbnail presentation that many are going for because it looks so great on an iPad. Texas Monthly was one to move to this type of visual with its web redesign back in February, and it is a publication that hasn’t suffered at all from presenting native ads alongside its reported content.

Even the Washington Post has introduced this model with the recently-launched Topicly, which tailors to readers who might respond better to and consume more news in the way of visuals rather than a page full of headlines.

The reason for the DMN dropping the wall online? It just didn’t work, the News‘ Chief Marketing Officer Jason Dyer, said in a DMN exclusive about their move away from the trend. Instead, Dyer said, the paper hopes to sell readers on “experience” — so, they’re hoping that people will be willing to pay for a less annoying, more aesthetically-fulfilling time of reading the news.

But the Nieman Lab’s Benton didn’t even seem impressed with the experience his former employer is offering.

The Dallas Morning News has always been a lovely, elegantly designed print newspaper. On the web, it’s just been a different story,” he wrote on Twitter last week. He continued in a reply to a Twitter user, “…their editorial is still strong and betrayed by bad digital work.”

What do you think? Will the DMN’s experiments with native ads and a dropped paywall end well? Should they have done it all at the same time?

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