You may have to say goodbye to free online news

Many of us have become accustomed to, perhaps spoiled by, the presence of free news on the internet.  This is particularly so when the source of the information is a daily newspaper.

Many newspapers are already charging for access.  The New York Times has joined the parade and charges a fee for anyone accessing more than twenty stories a month.  So does the Boston Globe, which is owned by the Times.  In many cases, including the Times, the on-line charge is dropped if one subscribes to the print edition.  This makes perfectly good sense, because the cost of producing on-line newspapers is far less than the revenue lost by the cancellation of home delivery of print editions.

Howard Kurtz, media critic for CNN, reports in an on-line post:

The Washington Post, one of the last holdouts among major newspapers, will probably begin charging for online access next year. And the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News recently announced that they will launch separate paywall sites early next year.

The Washington Post’s system would be similar to that of the New York Times in that “online readers once they surpass a certain number of articles or multimedia features a month.  Access to the home page and section fronts would not be limited.”  The Post may also be raising the cost of their print edition.

Kurtz goes on to say:

We’re all spoiled by the illusion that we can get whatever we want on the interwebs without having to pay a dime. Fire up the Google, troll the Twitter, see who’s got the most tantalizing links. We all do it, and we all take it for granted.

But you can’t have a media ecosystem in which everyone is aggregating, summarizing and retweeting content from everyone else. At some point there have to be actual human beings making phone calls and attending events and pawing through public documents.

The result, as we all know, has been widespread carnage in American newsrooms. Some papers, such as the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, have folded. Others, such as The New Orleans Times-Picayune, have cut back to three times a week. The Cleveland Plain Dealer just announced it is slashing a third of its newsroom. Even The New York Times, which has made fewer cuts than most papers, said last week that 30 jobs will be lost to buyouts.

In many ways we’ve been spoiled.  We’ve come to expect on-line news to be free.  Many of us have wondered why we have been so fortunate as to get the best of news while not paying a dime.  The answer is, much to our surprise, that on-line advertising generally covers the cost of the freight.  This may be difficult to believe because many of us would say, “I’ve never paid attention to the ads or purchased anything that’s advertised on-line.”  The problem with this contention is that by definition, we don’t pick up the subliminal messages.  We may have bought numerous items because an advertisement, even one that we don’t focus on, just pushes us over the cliff to make the purchase.

One of the problems with charging for on-line news is that it is a regressive expense.  People who are wealthy can easily pay $10 or $20 a month for a newspaper or magazine.  Those who have less income clearly cannot afford such an expense, especially when they’re struggling to put food on the table and may well have bought their computer with a nearly maxed-out credit card.  They will not be able to broach the paywall.  Additionally, the fees could also be prohibitive for educational institutions and libraries.

On-line fees may be a price that we have to pay.  We have become accustomed to thinking that we are entitled to something for nothing.  That’s only because we were spoiled in the beginning; when newspapers started to publish on-line editions.  Perhaps what they were doing was bait and switch.  In this case, the switch may actually be appropriate.