Climbing over the paywall

The parent company of the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen, the megalomanic Gannett, announced Wednesday it “plans to switch all of its 80 community newspapers to a paid model by the end of the year” — i.e., start charging for access to online content.

This was, I think, inevitable — especially for Gannett, which really does not care about the survival of its community newspapers whatsoever. (I bet the folks at the CRG are drooling uncontrollably.) The industry’s schizophrenic approach to online news — offering for free what can be bought in a dead tree edition — is suicide and erecting so-called “paywalls” has become a way to adapt the traditional business model to the Internet age. There has been a mixed response to paywalls — some are successful while others are complete failures — but I think they will become standard unless newspapers find a better, supplemental revenue stream. (The big bucks obviously come from advertising.)

(Hot off the press: the Los Angeles Times just announced its plans to implement a “membership program.”)

News of the Gannett paywall is both a curse and blessing for me. I usually gank photos of Hawkeye football and basketball games from DMR or P-C photo galleries and will be unable to do so for free starting this fall. (When it comes to Iowa basketball photos, nobody does it better than the CRG. The P-C photogs cannot take a quality basketball pic to save their lives. Plus, they butcher the lucky shots by cropping them like a toddler with a X-ACTO knife.) I also read the DMR online to stay informed about legislative wheeling and dealing. However, I have thought about subscribing to a local paper when I move into new digs in August and Gannett’s paywall is an added incentive to do so.

Ironically, I rarely read newspapers until the past couple years. Even as a high school and college journalist I almost never read rival papers or articles written by staffmates unless I were copyediting. However, I started reading news after moving to California. I do not remember any specific reason; I gradually browsed paper websites more and more. Now it is a daily ritual.

Though I have always liked dead tree versions, I did not start buying them until recently. It is a rare occurrence, though. Last April I had a month-long love affair with the printed version of the NYT after it erected an online paywall, but now pick it up every once in a while. (One definitely gets $2.50 worth of news, and then some, but I think it is a lot to pay for a daily newspaper. The last time I checked the Sunday edition is $6.) I made a New Year’s resolution to read a dead tree edition every day, but that effort has fallen victim to frugality and laziness. Why buy something at a newsstand when I can access it at home for free?

Such is the conundrum facing the newspaper industry — and it only gets worse. I remember listening to an episode of NPR’s On Point about the NYT paywall. One caller vehemently opposed the paywall, saying he did not want to pay for news. Why should he pay for online news when he is already paying for Internet service? He would, he said, be paying twice for the same thing. His logic seemed a little strange but I understood where he was coming from: he assumes news is inherently free (since he has probably been able to access it for free online his entire adult life) and the idea of paying for it offends him. His oddball comment does bring up another good point: nobody directly pays the television news networks for news. Actually, in a roundabout way I think cable subscription costs are kicked back to the networks since cable providers need to subscribe to stations, but one usually writes a check to the cable provider and not CNN and its ilk.

So what is the newspaper industry to do? I have no clue, but I will likely start subscribing to the P-C or CRG come August. The trouble now is deciding which one.


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