In case you hadn’t heard, we here at the Albany Democrat-Herald will soon be asking readers who do most of their news viewing online to pay us something for the privilege.
Reactions to that information have gone something like this:
“Hey, D-H hacks! You stink! Why would anybody want to waste a precious eyeball blink on any of the drivel you produce? Who do you think you are, the New York Times/Time Magazine/Oprah? The only reason I even take your rag is to line my litterbox, and your lack of journalistic integrity even makes my cat cranky. You couldn’t find a story if it came up and kicked you in your unprintables. Cancel my subscription, and my cat’s.”
I have to admit to being mildly surprised by the strength of the reactions. If we’re that bad, why would any of the commenters be reading us online often enough to even be affected by the charge?
Here’s the deal: If you go to our website only every so often, you’re probably never going to hit our charge feature. You can look at up to 15 of our website pages for free during any 30-day period. That count doesn’t include our home page, so you can scan the headlines for free any time you want. Classified sections and advertisements don’t count, either, and neither do stories from the Associated Press, or other content that isn’t generated by one of the reporters or photographers here.
If you already get the printed paper, will we charge you after 15 page views? Yes, at this point, we will, although it’s a discounted price ($2.95 a month as opposed to $7.95 a month if you don’t take the paper, or an annual charge of $11.95 versus $59.95). Why? Well, corporate wording on that is, “There’s a lot more available to users than just the newspaper content.” And while I’m not sure I get that myself, I’m guessing the commenters somehow must agree, because otherwise they wouldn’t need to get online much, since they already have the paper.
I understand the real strength of the reaction comes from being told we’re going to start charging for something that used to be free. I do get that. But here’s the thing: We aren’t free. We never have been. Most professional newsgatherers can’t afford to do this job out of sheer love of the craft (not to mention the great hours, fabulous benefit plans, state-of-the-art equipment and adoring fans; see comments above). We’ve got school shoes to buy and rent to pay and for-crying-out-loud, the-dishwasher’s-broken-again service fees, same as you.
But we think we perform a valuable service by publishing information about your niece’s honor roll, your son’s basketball team, your parents’ anniversary, your former coworker’s death, the string of thefts in your neighborhood, the new business downtown.
We figure you’d rather we sit through the city council meeting or the school board meeting or the county commissioners meeting, and then tell you about it, than you taking time off work to go yourself.
We believe you’d be interested in knowing that your water bills are about to go up, or your streets are about to be resurfaced, or that Styx is coming to this year’s Art & Air Festival (with Firefall! And I’m already booked that night! Curses!).
And – mistakenly, I’m sure, according to our commenters – we feel that information ought to be worth something to you.
Hear me now and listen to me later, as the immortal Hans and Franz used to say: Subscriptions don’t pay for news. You couldn’t charge people enough for a paper to staff a newsroom, any more than you can rely on admission tickets to keep a swimming pool filled. Both need to be subsidized (something most swimming pools are struggling with just as hard as we are). For generations, that subsidy has come from advertising, and from the fact that we print people had a corner on the local ad market.
The Internet changed all that. Not so much because people could read their news online, but because they now had Craigslist and Monster.com and so many other ways advertisers could capture their eyeballs. So yes, just like you, we’re trying to find new ways to generate revenue to stay alive.
I find it funny, in a sad way, the fine line we tread. People will always, ALWAYS, have a need for information, information that is timely, fair, pertinent to their specific needs, and vetted for accuracy to the best of the gatherer’s ability. People badly want that information. They want it so badly, they frequently call and scream at us for not providing it fast enough. And yet they don’t realize, or care, that it comes with a price.
Is there a way to rig the system to get online content for free? I won’t say there isn’t. There are always ways to be dishonest, including putting your quarters in a newspaper box and grabbing six copies instead of one. It all comes down to what you think is right.
To be sure, you can vote with your eyeballs and blink away. That’s the right of any consumer. Time may come when enough of you do so that we will cease to exist.
When that happens, however, the need for that vetted information will still be there. And I’ll be interested to see what kinds of sacrifices people are willing to make to get it, because it just doesn’t come for free.