NY Times Steps Up to the Plate

You might not like it, but The New York Times is close to charging readers for online content, according to the Wall Street Journal. It’s a gutsy move by the country’s most highly regarded newspaper, but it could mark the end of a business model that’s thrown the newspaper industry into major turmoil over the past decade.

I honestly believe I would have a job at a newspaper right now if no one had ever posted free content online. And while the newspaper industry’s problems have become much more complex, it doesn’t take a genius to point out where the trouble began:

  • First, newspapers began to publish their content online for free. The hope was this would increase readership, especially outside of local markets. (Because of this, I still get to read the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Mankato Free Press and Minneapolis Star Tribune daily.)
  • Newspapers expected online advertising revenue to balance the loss of subscribers who would choose to read online content exclusively. Online advertising would create a second revenue stream with even more earning ability than print.
  • But, online advertising was never as lucrative as expected. This led to tightened budgets, job cuts, hiring freezes, and in many cases, bankruptcy filings.

The past can’t be changed, and The New York Times knows this. That doesn’t necessarily mean the way things were is th way they have to be. They’ve done their due diligence, which is more than anyone can say for the first newspapers to put their content online for free. I’m hoping this crossover is extremely successful, not only as a journalist but as an American who believes in the value of newspapers.

If paying for online news content feels wrong to you, consider what it can do for the industry. This will stabilize newsrooms, add jobs, allow larger budgets which can be invested in reporting and adding resources. Consider the importance of newspapers. Who else captures the discourse of a community? Who else informs us on local issues? Who else accepts letters to express concern or contentment?

There may be nothing more difficult in a capitalist society than charging for something that’s always been free. That’s said, if your local newspaper started charging for access to its Web site, would you pay up?