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Turning a page

Robert Downes - January 24th, 2011
Turning a Page

Congratulations to the Traverse City Record-Eagle, which has started
charging for a portion of its local online content. It’s about time,
and anyone who cares about the fate of newspapers in America should
hope this trend continues.
Scores of newspapers have gone under in the past few years and
thousands of journalists have lost their jobs under the delusion that
providing their work free of charge online is some kind of mandate.
That notion is a meme -- a thought virus -- that infects all of print
journalism, no matter how many newsrooms are stripped to the bone of
reporters and editors. It’s an industry-wide mental illness.
Print journalists have reached a point of such wretched, low
self-esteem that they feel their work must be offered free of charge
online with no other viable alternative. Imagine if your boss told you
that your company was going to start giving its products away for free
and you could expect a future of unpaid furloughs, pay cuts, lay-offs
and a decline in the company’s quality. That’s the bizarre state of
American newspapers today.
By its nature, the Internet encourages its users to flit from
site-to-site in a matter of seconds, and there seem to be more
websites out in cyberspace than there are trees in Siberia.
But newspapers persist in believing that if they just keep doing the
same online thing over and over again, ad infinitum, then the readers
will someday come around to spending quality time with their
increasingly archaic-looking websites and the ad revenues will flow
again. This too is a classic definition of insanity.
The meme infecting the newspaper industry is abetted by fear of
missing out on the revolution in information. A recent Harris poll
claims that out of 2,000 adults surveyed, 77% said they “wouldn‘t pay
anything” to read newspaper stories online.
Yeah, sure, everyone likes something for nothing, but this is patently
ridiculous. If there was absolutely no free online option, people
would likely prefer to pay a small amount to be informed than to
remain in the dark about what’s happening in their hometowns.
The recent shooting in TC is a case in point. It was the talk of the
town for a week, and if the story hadn’t been offered free of charge
online, the Record-Eagle surely would have roped in plenty of paying
online subscriptions from born-again newspaper readers.
The Harris poll also noted that younger readers aren’t inclined to
read newspapers at all. Who can blame them?
What’s been lost in the frenzy to move online is the fact that
newspapers have failed to keep themselves interesting. Many are
appallingly dull, dated and uninspired. Beetle Bailey on the comics
page? Whole sections devoted to baking macaroni or fudge brownies? A
complete absence of anything titillating or humorous? Same old
broadsheet format that looks right in step with the ’70s? That‘s
today’s newspaper, far removed from the coarse traditions of William
Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who had wildly popular papers
packed with stories of sex, crime and scandal. You know, like the
stuff you find on the Internet.
Instead of improving their products with more local reporting,
gripping features, exciting designs and content that’s “with it,” the
corporate goal of the so-called “McPapers” over the past 10 years has
been to cut staff in favor of wire service copy and stodgy formats
that have changed little in 50 years.
Newspapers aren’t the only media suffering from delusions; our local
television and radio stations are infected by the same meme, believing
that their ho-hum websites are worth the bother of pitching resources
into, instead of improving their broadcasts.
Within a few years, every publication in the world will be
available on some version of the iPad. Great, Northern Express has
been ahead of that curve for more than a year now with our Virtual
Express -- -- an online paper that ‘flips’ its
pages and connects to the websites of our advertisers.
But unless mainstream newspapers start charging for their own virtual
editions in order to pay their reporters, they’re history. And with
them will go all of the watchdog functions over city and state
government, the courts, crime, neighborhood issues, the environment --
the works -- that inform us as citizens.
Sure, you can do the same thing online with specialty sites that are
tailored for geeks of city government, the environment and niche
politics, but to inform and empower the general public in a way that
goes deeper than the gloss of TV news, you need solid, reputable,
general-interest newspapers that uphold 300 years of tradition in
reporting the facts.
Some newspapers, including the New York Times, have tried tepid
half-measures to charge for a small amount of their content, with
little luck. But this is like trying to quit smoking by allowing
yourself half a pack a day. Newspapers will never succeed until they
adopt an all-or-nothing approach. This strategy has worked for the
Wall Street Journal and a few daring regional newspapers across the
country. One publisher even charges more for his online paper than for
home delivery of the print version.
I can’t imagine the corporate owners of the Record-Eagle or the
Petoskey News-Review would value my opinion on this matter, or perhaps
even care to read it, but if I were in their shoes, there would be a
charge for the online content of their newspapers equal to that of
their print editions, enacted immediately. This is the Alamo, guys --
quit wasting your bullets on a strategy that’s proven a dud for
newspapers and, in a word, “charge!”

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