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News: Should it be free?

April 15, 2012

More and more news organizations are charging for online content, and while this isn’t well received by the public there are valid arguments which support the practice.

The New York Times is once again reducing access to its news products. Now news junkies will only get ten free internet articles a month. Previously, the paper gave away twenty articles and any clicks after that had to be purchased.

The Times claims, “This change will strengthen our ability to continue providing the world’s most insightful journalism today.”

It is evident the NY Times is trying to get all of its online news consumers to purchase a digital subscription, which costs $3.75 / week or $195 / year.

The Times started charging for online content in March of 2011. Soon after, local newspapers also started charging for web products. Lee newspapers in Montana have established a pay wall with the hope of making a profit off its website.

These changes have not been greeted with public support. When the Helena Independent Record announced it would be charging for online content, area residents were outraged.

One reader commented, “I understand that times are tough in the newspaper business and that publishers are looking for new revenue sources. But asking subscribers of the print edition to pay extra to access the content online that they’ve already paid for is really an insult.”

I understand change is difficult especially when it comes to things which impact our wallets. However, I believe if these changes aren’t embraced we will all see a decline in the quality of news.

Television news has always been financially supported by advertisers (public broadcasting serves as the only exception).  However, advertisers are not paying for the news. They are paying for a product. In return for their money, they receive a 30 second clip on television. The ad revenue is then used to subsidize the newsroom.

I would argue that news is also a product and shouldn’t be free.

Television viewers can watch the evening news for free, all they need is a tv and antenna. TV news consumers haven’t ever been forced to pay for news, which might explain the tight news budgets reporters operate under.

I question this model. Why should news organizations give away their product for free? Despite the fact that it has been treated as such, news is not an entitlement.

Newspapers have done it right, they charge for subscriptions. While subscriptions aren’t single handily supporting the newsroom, the practice of charging for news is smart.

The public demands to know what is going on in the world, and yet people gripe when they have to pay for the delivery of the information. Disseminating information isn’t cheap. It costs money to bring you the news, even online.

At Montana’s News Station we have online producers whose only jobs are to post web stories, manage social media sites and make sure information is getting out to the public. We don’t charge for our online content, viewers can simply click and get their news for free.

How long that will continue to be a sustainable business model?

When the Helena IR went to a pay wall model, people criticized the quality of the news and said it wasn’t worth the money. I wonder what would happen to the quality of newsrooms if they charged a fee for news and used the revenue to beef up the newsroom. I would bet people would see more news and a higher quality of reporting.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sid Mann permalink
    April 15, 2012 5:44 pm

    1. Advertising. Besides subscription fees, newspapers charge very high advertising rates, but they haven’t all figured out how to bring that model to their internet news site. I don’t subscribe to the paper anymore, and, I don’t read the local news much online – I utlize many sources and I appreciate that availability. But I miss the current event ads and a few
    other announcements.
    2. Classified ads used to bring in significant income to newspapers, but now that we are connected digitally and there are competitive sites, they’ve lost much of that income. I paid $40 for 5 or 7 day ad to sell my car in the paper – no calls. I paid $55 on a used auto site, $55 until it sells. I sold it in 4 days. Bring the advertising model to the website news sources.
    3. There is a difference between NEWS and JOURNALISM. People “seem” to want the news – just the facts. But what happened to good journalism? Road trip through the highline in a week? We can read that in a blog.
    4. Current studies in generations show Gen Y and beyond (Z?) want information in “snippets”. Look at Missoula’s KPAX website – title, parapraph, next item. And, they are more “green” than previous generations. Has the newspaper industry calculated number of Gen Y subscribers compared to X and Boomers? My guess is it follows the number of home phones installed in each generation homes!

    I’m an X’er. I stopped my subscription but I thought the news was only “fluff”. Online, still fluff – I don’t read it and its free! Will people pay for quality journalism, or do the newspapers simply market to the boomers? I don’t know the answer, and I’m sure they are asking themselves the same thing.

  2. Sid Mann permalink
    April 15, 2012 5:49 pm

    PS, sorry I should mention – I don’t live in Helena, so I’m not referring to Helena IR. I found this link because of your FB post. Which adds to the discussion, doesn’t it? You are being paid to post those, should we pay you for those efforts? Thanks for your work.

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