Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Free Internet news for the people going the way of the Dodo Bird?

It is easy to find “news” on the Internet for the cost of Wi-Fi access, or even for free in public access points. Sure a lot of it is “opinion” or a certain slant to the news, but at least you learn about what is happening in the world we live in, and having access to it should not be restricted. Yet that is exactly what is happening on websites run by major newspapers with shrinking advertising revenue. 

For example, while the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is now a website-only concern, and has technically “free” and full access to its content now that its payroll and overhead is considerably reduced, the Seattle Times continues to maintain a print edition at apparently considerable expense despite its slim production. I suppose that 75 cents isn’t much to spend for a daily, but it does seem like a lot for one or two stories of interest, mainly of concern to those who might be significantly impacted personally. 

The Times also runs a digital edition. Its content used to be free as well; today, all that is free is the homepage. Click on a story link and you are told that you must either purchase a print subscription, or pay 99 cents a week for full website access. Now, I suppose one might say that anyone who refuses to spend a measly 99 cents a week for news access is just being a cheapskate. But I don’t even like the Times and its politics, and with almost every major newspaper now charging for access, there is certainly better options to spend one’s money (say, the New York Times or Washington Post). If I want the latest salacious local gossip, I can always look at the front page of the Seattle Times, in the Seattle Weekly, or the KOMO television news website. 

Why are large newspapers charging web surfers for access to news? Because digital advertising revenue has not been able to cover the cost of print edition overhead. The belief is that if access to website news is free, than fewer people will subscribe to or purchase the print edition. By either requiring web access be contingent on either a fee or a print subscription, newspaper publishers hope to increase revenue by both methods. 

There has been some evidence that this is working, and although the reasons why this strategy has been put in place is still in evidence. According to the Newspaper Association of America, Circulation revenue actually rose 3.7 percent in 2013, to nearly $11 billion. But total revenue was off 2.6 percent, down to $37.6 billion, of which $23.6 billion was advertising revenue, including $17.3 billion from print and $3.4 billion from digital. Both print and classified advertising continue to see dramatic declines, while digital advertising revenue grew only 1.5 percent for newspapers, compared to 17 percent for online business overall.

Some say that the fee for access model amounts to business “suicide” for newspapers engaging in it—that Internet users will refuse to be blackmailed, and find their news elsewhere. On the other hand, one can understand the concerns of newspaper publishers; after all, they are not in the news business for free.

But the problem is how far will this go? Will CNN start charging for access to its website? Will all major news organizations start charging for access? Will there come a time when news is restricted to only those who can pay for it? Especially when such broadcast entities as Fox News and sometimes CNN are not providing you a true picture of the facts?

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