What price free press? Freedom isn't free

The NYTimes says it is going to start charging for its online contect beginning “early” 2011. The story is here.

About time, says I, but they should try to find a way to have the Washington Post, the LA Times, and most every other newspaper in the country that is currently giving it away do so at the same time.

Simply put: I can’t work for free. I have to buy food. I have to pay for housing.  So does everyone else here.

Actually, the Standard-Examiner already does this. Our web site is in two parts — a free site and the digital edition site. Some content is only on the digital site, which you can only access if you pay a subscription fee, either to the web site or by buying the physical newspaper.

I might note that my column is only available on the pay site. Am I worth it?  I like to think so.

The problem is, news sites that accumulate news and put it out for all the world, such as Huffington Post and lord knows how many others, don’t pay us when they take our news. They just take our stuff. Some may subscribe to the Associated Press, and pick us up there, but others just take it, or link to it, and there we are, hoping we can bring in enough revenue from web site ads to pay the nut.

Do we? I dunno. They don’t tell me those kinds of numbers. My guess would be that the web site is a thriving but smaller part of our whole revenue stream. I do know that in cities where newspapers tried to go web site only after the paper edition failed — Denver and Seattle — they had to downsize very, very drastically and still failed. Detroit has gone web-only several days of the week, and I have no idea how that’s working.

People want it for free.

But if you don’t pay, as I said, newspapers can’t hire folk like me to go out and gather that news. It’s that simple. In a way it would be ironic if Huffington Post et al went bust because, having driven all of us paid journalists out of business, they suddenly had no news to post.

Yeah, I know, bloggers will fill in the gap. Bloggers may hang around the city council and post stuff, but they aren’t journalists. Believe it or not, a little bit of training does make a difference.
Being paid also makes you work a lot harder at the job. May I note that it was not a blogger who discovered the horrible abuses of wounded veterans in Walter Reed Army Hospital, it was a Washington Post staff reporter? She spent a year working on the story. Would a blogger, who is not paid, put in that kind of time?

It’s a tough time. We’re all struggling to stay alive. Giving our product away isn’t the way to do it. And here you are, reading this for free.

One is tempted to insert here “You get what you pay for,” but in my case I do get paid, and if you want to see what I get paid to do, buy a paper or check out the digital edition.

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24 Responses to What price free press? Freedom isn't free

  1. Doug Gibson says:

    Charlie, I’m rooting for the Times, and other papers, to have success. I worry that the effort started too late.

  2. It would be interesting to see the ratio of papers that have folded (get it?) who had a good web presence vs. those that did not. The web was coming, free content was inevitable to establish ourselves. Had we not jumped on that, we’d have probably failed. Having a strong, useful web site with content is crucial to any newspaper now.

    As for the bloggers… agreed, most are not reliable for news, and anyone who devotes full time to writing can’t do it for free either. Someone will have to be paid for information, that is a fact of life. I’m all for paying the professional journalists for quality reporting and reading bloggers for free.

  3. flatlander100 says:

    On the NYT charging for on line content: Didn’t it try that a couple of years ago, and it was huge bust? It folded the experiment, as I recall, after about six months.

    As for bloggers replacing professional journalists and doing the job as well or better: well, no, they won’t and most can’t. T But let’s not be too dismissive. Some bloggers are professional journalists [or were] and make a living now on line. And they do good work. So there are exceptions.

    Second: sorry, but I’m afraid the evidence is out there that some newspapers, particularly regarding editorials and story assignment decisions, have become timid, and unwilling to either write about, or take stands on, matters likely to annoy advertisers. [Latest issue of High Country News has an example: reporter for a Colorado paper noticed Ski Resort exec talking about great recent snowfall, with pic of him on his snow covered deck. Reporter noticed that the snowfall was largely on the eastern slopes, while the resorts were largely on western slopes, which did not get much snow. He wrote a column about it. Resort owner raised Cain with the editor, threatened to pull advertising, editor told reporter to make nice, and fired him a week later. It happens.]

    Often this timidity is expressed by decisions not to cover some stories, or aspects of them. It is in countering this kind of timidity, or I guess we could call it self-censorship [and I understand its origins: ticking off advertisers when there are so few of them out there is no small matter, and a dead newspaper can cover nothing at all] that blogers can, and sometimes do, play a significant role.

    PS: the HCN story is not available on its free website. I looked. [I'm a subscriber so I can get access, but I won't link to it for the same reasons on local blogs I don't link to Mr. Trentelman's columns: they're proprietary, and are not offered free of charge. Gotta respect that. But if the HCN article, or Mr. Trentelman's columns were available on the two papers' free sites, i'd link to them without a qualm. If you make something available free on line, seems silly to complain that other people, at HuffPost for example, link to it themselves.]

  4. laytonian says:

    I know how to get more people to subscribe to the e-edition: mess up their delivery so often (like once or twice a week) that they totally abandon the delivered newspaper.

    That’s how it worked for us….PLUS, since we travel a lot, we always have access to the paper, don’t have to stop and start it, and our trashcan has more room. It’s inexpensive, and it’s always delivered to my computer screen.

    BUT….how many other newspapers would I pay to read online? I dunno. Probably the SL Tribune. I’d give up scanning the NY and LA Times websites.

  5. flatlander100 says:

    Ah, Laytonian, if I have to choose between the inky fingers version and the on line version, it’s the dead tree edition every time. I can stick it under my arm, and read it the bus stop, or on the bus, or at the coffee shoppe or on Frontrunner or at the counter at Karens. I can clip articles at will and stuff them into pockets and folders [where sometimes I stumble across them ages later, and read them all over again]. I can work the crossword of the cryptoquote waiting for the doctor. Underline. Pull out a pen and fight with Charlie or Neal or Doug or anyone else in it in the margins as I read. All that access to every page, on demand, without having to haul around a computer or pay for WiFi access. Can’t beat that with a stick. Or a laptop.

  6. Neal H says:

    You could work for tips, Charles.

  7. ctrentelman says:

    the previous nytimes effort was a “premium” package that, mostly, got you their columnists. The paper discovered that they’d make more money with ads when people linked to the pages if they were available for free.

    this system is different, allows the links, but also makes you pay after you access the site a certain number of times a month. What the heck, it could work. I am told our system, with dual sites, is working to the company’s satisfaction.

    I get lots of tips, neal, but they’re usually of the “You should do a story on my amazing friend” sort. No good when I need a sack of potatoes, although all are appreciated and sometimes even pan out.

    As for bloggers who used to be journalists and are now making money as bloggers, may be, but you can count them on one hand, and the number who are making a good living, I would wager, you could count on one finger. OK, maybe two. That’s legitimate news journalists, not opinionators I’m talking about. Bloviators don’t count, honest news reporters are the discussion here.

    Really, do you know of any?

    Having said that, my wife and I may subscribe to the nytimes now — it’s the honest thing to do and it will give me full access to their archives, which goes well with the lifetime of front page DVDs I got for christmas.

  8. flatlander100 says:

    The High Country News story I mentioned above, it turns out, is available on their free site. Here’s the link:

    http://www.hcn.org/search?SearchableText=Berwyn

    And I notice in your reply, Charlie, you didn’t mention the idea of blogs being places where issues/stories that papers sometimes refuse to address [because of political leanings, publisher bias, or even advertiser influence perhaps, see link above] can be and sometimes are addressed.

    I agree, — any reasonable person would have to, I think — that what some have unfortunately taken to calling “the blogosphere” is filled with junk, bloviation, and a whole lot more not woth anyone’s time. But not all of it. Not everywhere. Not all the time. And so blog sites can, and some do, provide venues for raising matters [and not trivial ones] not always raised by papers…. for whatever reasons. Like any form of media — press, TV, cable, radio, blogs — it’s caveat emptor. Newspaper folk are in no position, really, given the history of their profession, to sneer at other media in their early stages for sometimes engaging in yellow journalism. You guys have been there, done that, designed the tee-shirt.

    I’m also not sure I’d entirely buy your distinction between blogs you dismiss as “bloviators” and blogs that include “honest news reporters” on the other. Most papers and news mags I know of contain both columns and opinion/analysis pieces ["thumb suckers" as Molly Ivins called them], and straight news reporting. So do some blogs. I’m not at all sure the dividing line is as starkly clear as you seem to think.

  9. dan s. says:

    Fifteen years ago I quipped to a visiting friend that I like the Ogden paper because it takes only 5 minutes to read.

    Today the paper’s news content seems to be about half what it was then.

    Still, I’m a subscriber and I intend to remain one. Every few days there’s an article that’s worth a whole week’s subscription price. And my home delivery service is beyond excellent.

    I strongly prefer a consumer-funded business model to an advertiser-funded business model. Most media companies rely on some of each, but the quality that we get from NPR and High Country News is way above that of commercial radio and the Salt Lake City Weekly. What’s the mix of revenue at the Standard-Examiner, Charlie? You emphasize paid subscriptions, but doesn’t your paper get most of its revenue from advertisers? (I know advertising rates are based on paid subscription rates, but the advertisers don’t fundamentally care whether or not a reader has paid.)

    As long as news media rely on any advertising revenue, news will be biased in favor of advertisers. Charlie, I know you and your bosses will absolutely deny this, because you’ve bought into the system so deeply that you don’t recognize your bias. But please read the HCN column and then ask yourself what would happen if the S-E published the truth about, say, the local realtors PAC.

    Flatlander is right about how the line between news and opinion is being blurred, not just by bloggers but also by the traditional media. Since Don Porter’s departure, the Standard-Examiner has had a single editor (Andy Howell) over both the news and editorial pages. So the same editor who doesn’t want a story covered in the news section can also, now, keep it off the editorial pages. And I’m not speaking hypothetically.

    The fact is, as long as the professionals fail to cover important news, there will be room for amateurs to fill the gap. Please, Charlie, don’t blame us amateurs for threatening your livelihood when the real problem is your newspaper’s business model and the inherent bias that results from it.

  10. Charles Trentelman says:

    I;m not blaming the amateurs, Dan. I’m saying that you can’t count on amateurs to stick around, week after week, boring city council meeting after boring city council meeting, to report on all the stuff that goes on, not just the one scandal that you found and labored on and now don’t get the respect you are due for.

    Journalism is a job, Reporting news is a job. Democracy can’t survive if it only hears about the occasional scandal that gets an amateur’s juices flowing. It needs day-to-day feedback and coverage.

    If bloggers can fill that gap, working for no pay, that’s fine, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you didn’t get paid a nickel for your work on Ogden politics last year. Absent pay to inspire you or motivate you, would you be willing to undertake a series of profiles of the new council? A look at garbage recycling and how successful it is in cities along the Wasatch Front? A disucssion of books read by teens at Ben Lomond High School? A story on a family whose father and wage earner just died and who can help them?

    Two of the previous are columns I am working on. I get paid to be here. It’s my job to meet a daily deadline. But will you do those things for your blog?

    Probly not, and nobody expects you to, and it wouldn’t pay you to. If you will read my original post here, I was looking for one journalist, any journalist, who covers news (NOT Opinion) on an internet blog and gets enough money out of it to make a living.

    So far, I’ve seen a lot of gum flapping, and a lot of criticism of the print media, but no names of news bloggers, bloggers who go out and gather actual news, getting a regular paycheck. There may be one out there, (I think Huffington Post has one or two, but they don’t count because I named them, not you, and Huffington makes most of its money on traffic for stuff it steals from the rest of us) but apparently none of you can’t name him/her.

  11. flatlander100 says:

    OK, Charlie, since you asked: Josh Marshall’s “Talking Points Memo” which puts up a lot of opinion and analysis [what I guess you'd dismiss as "bloviating"] but also does original straight reporting, now mostly out of its “Muckraker” reporters. And it seems to provide work for a growing number of journalists, researchers and writers, since they’re still hiring. You asked.

    As for your reply to Dan that he’s not paid for what he digs up as an amateur journalist/blogger and so couldn’t support himself by doing it or do it full time: true enough, probably. And that he got a story or two he stays on that the main stream press didn’t, but that he isn’t a general assignment reporter covering lots of stuff is also true enough. But you’re missing the point, I think, about those you dismiss as amateurs who do reporting [not just commentary] for blogs: there are thousands of them. Each maybe working only on one story over months and only occasionally, but since there are so many of them, they do manage to fill in holes uncovered by both local and occasionally, national media. They do stories, and not trivial ones, that would otherwise not be done at all.

    The point, again, is not that blogs can, or should, or are capable of replacing newspapers. They can’t, shouldn’t and aren’t. [Why I subscrie to two papers.] But they do fill in holes, now and then, and extend coverage beyond what papers do [for whatever reason] locally and sometimes nationally.

    As for Huff Post and other repackaging sites “stealing” from newspapers by reposting their stuff free of charge: If they’re reposting whole articles, then I’m with you. But since your paper’s stuff is copyrighted [either by the paper, the author or the wire service], if Huff Post reposts in full a Charlie Trentelman column, I’m hard put to see why the SE isn’t going after them for copyright violations. If they however, post a link to stuff on the SE free site, that’s entirely another matter. Such links drive traffic to the SE’s free site, that increases “hits” to the site and [presumably] helps you guys sell ads.

    Finally, Charlie, there’s this: the reason, or one of them, newspapers have had a privileged place in American political culture is that they’ve been since Jefferson’s day, the means, or a means anyway, of provoking public discussion. And so, if someone commenting on an argument you’ve made in the SE, quotes a few lines or a key paragraph and then links the rest as part of the a discussion of whatever issue you wrote about, seems to me that’s not theft. That’s your paper’s contribution to [warning: cliche' coming up] the free marketplace of ideas that’s supposed to make our ramshackle messy clattering democracy work. And the SE and newspapers in general are just going to have to deal with it.

  12. dan s. says:

    Thanks, Flatlander, for saving me the trouble of responding to most of what Charlie said. I completely agree but I’ll add a few minor points.

    First, Charlie, I think you’re confused about my personal blog. That blog is a personal “diary” where I write self-indulgent essays about various stuff that I do. It was never intended as a source of breaking news–especially about Ogden politics.

    Virtually all of my writing on Ogden politics goes instead on Weber County Forum, where I’ve written not just about the Envision Ogden scandal but also about The Junction, Ogden’s utility rates, the streetcar proposal, the east bench water tanks, Mt. Ogden Golf Course, the proposed Velodrome, the proposed ice climbing tower, Malan’s Basin, local elections, crime statistics, and more. On all of these subjects, my writing has added substantially to the factual information that was otherwise available through the Standard-Examiner or other news sources. So I don’t appreciate your dismissal of this work as all being about “one scandal”.

    And if I seem a bit unhappy about your newspaper’s reaction to all this, it’s not because I personally want more respect. It’s because more often than not, when I uncover something newsworthy, the S-E refuses to pass the information on to its much wider audience–and the public remains uninformed. See, in my line of work (academic science), we’re in the habit of building on the work of our competitors. And good newspapers do that too, reporting what their competitors have uncovered and then trying to add what they can. But the S-E seems to have the attitude that if someone else (the Trib, or a TV station, or a blog) has already reported something, it should either ignore the matter entirely or, if it can’t be ignored, do its own story, from scratch, from a completely different angle. It’s as if y’all are under orders never to acknowledge that you even have any legitimate competition. I just don’t get that.

    Finally, about that “one scandal”. It seems to me that a small-town newspaper should do more than comfort the afflicted with human interest stories (beautifully written though they are). A local paper also has a responsibility to afflict the comfortable–in this instance, by telling the citizens when their elected officials have committed crimes. If the paper refuses to do that, it endangers not only itself (and its reporters’ livelihoods) but also the future of our democracy.

  13. flatlander100 says:

    Dan:

    We agree on very nearly everything on this topic. But not on this. You wrote: “A local paper also has a responsibility to afflict the comfortable–in this instance, by telling the citizens when their elected officials have committed crimes.”

    No. It’s not the job of a paper to decide that anyone, elected or otherwise, has committed a crime. That’s the job of prosecutors and juries. Not newspapers. Papers can raise questions about the conduct of public officials, can dig out facts that might reasonably lead readers to suspect criminal conduct, and papers can, and should, beat the drums loudly for investigations into possibly illegal conduct they’ve turned up by their reporting. But, until a jury decides or someone pleads guilty, it’s not the job of a paper to “tell citizens when their elected officials have committed crimes.”

    Other than that, nihil obstat.

  14. Michael Trujillo says:

    I’ll subscribe to your on-line edition when it offers Soduku and crossword puzzles.

    Wait a minute, I can’t lie in bed with my computer nestled on a pillow and do the afore mentioned Soduku and crossword puzzle.

    Forget it. I’ll stick with reading the free version of the S.E. and purchasing the daily edition of the S. F. Chronicle at $1.00 a pop in order to have my nightly puzzle ritual.

  15. ctrentelman says:

    the crossword and soduku are both in our on-line subscription edition, the e-edition. Just find the page, double click on the puzzle of choice, hit “print” and there you are.

    I just saved you a buck a day. You are welcome.

  16. dan s. says:

    flatlander: I think we agree. It’s not the paper’s job to decide whether someone is guilty of a crime. But when a public official commits acts that are potentially criminal, the paper needs to report on what happened. I didn’t mean to imply that the paper should reach any conclusions about criminal guilt.

    It more or less the same as when any other citizen commits a serious crime. The paper shouldn’t wait for a conviction to report on the known facts, including the fact that an apparent crime was committed. But when the suspect is a public official, I’d say the paper’s duty is even greater.

  17. flatlander100 says:

    In re: xword puzzles and on line editions. There are many ways in which digital technology can and does enhance a newspaper’s offerings. But digitech does not serve xword puzzles well. Having to keep clicking and shifting from down to across clues, is just flat annoying. Can’t come close to the tactile pleasure of pen on paper. No contest. Ditto doing the Cryptoquote. On line tech just does not work for it. Can’t say about Sodoku, since I don’t do them [they give me a headache]. But I imagine trying to work them on line would be just as annoying.

  18. ctrentelman says:

    the LA Times has a good commentary on this same subject. The net isn’t just screwing newspapers:

    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/arts/la-et-onthemedia22-2010jan22,1,2309960,full.column

  19. dan s. says:

    Charlie,

    I have a photographer friend in SLC whose livelihood has nearly vanished because of the internet.

    And I suppose I’m partly to blame. I’ve allowed the Standard-Examiner and other publications to use several of my own photos for free. On one occasion the S-E printed a photo of mine and didn’t even credit me for it.

  20. dan s. says:

    Perhaps I should add that I’ve never heard my friend belittle amateur photographers.

  21. flatlander100 says:

    IN Re: the LA Times story [thanks for the link], two observations:

    1. Seems to me, given the declining revenues of papers, having access to catalogs of stock photos to illustrate stories [not breaking news], like the jar of change to run with the story on “the new frugality” significantly reduces a print paper’s costs, and thus makes it more likely it survive than less so, que no?

    2. The new technology is not going away. Yes, it’s working a massive change in how we receive news, and how it’s produced and disseminated. Technological changes often disrupt incomes and jobs that had been stable for a long time. [How many monks copying bibles one by one did the printing press put out of work? How many manufactures of buggy whips went under when the automobile took off? How many high-fee stock brokers lost their jobs when discount on-line brokerages opened up? And so on.]

    So, Mr. T., print journalists are going to have to find a way to live with, exploit, and to use creatively and profitably, digitech… if they want to survive. The technology is not going away, and moaning about the good old days has not proven, over time, to be a successful strategy. It’s a downright Darwinian world out there: evolve or go extinct.

    Happening in my shop too, Mr. T. and no, I’m not happy about it either Take a look at what on-line packagers of what they claim is a college education [from the relatively higher end offerers like University of Phoenix to that "go to college in your pajamas" ad that ran a lot on cable a few months ago to the actor-college-professor for, I think, "Kaplan University" who tells a group of students in a college lecture hall "we have failed you," and goes on about new technology [meaning on line courses] will destroy, and should, “old thinking” about education —- meaning what I do. Is the ad right? Hope not. But it might be. We’re all having to adapt to the new digital world, like it or not.

    Will what emerges in the end be an improvement over what it replaces? Can’t say. Probably in some cases yes, in some cases no. But when a tidal wave of change is coming straight at you, doesn’t seem much point to waste time bemoaning how unfair it all is. It just is.

  22. Neal Humphrey says:

    I’m still using both print editions of newspapers plus downloaded and printed crossword puzzles. I plug away at solving them using a fountain pen.

  23. Sam Cooper says:

    There are a growing number of news Web sites using a nonprofit model, with considerable success. As newspapers like the NY Times switch to a pay model, they surrender their market share online to those who don’t charge. Online only nonprofit papers work a lot like NPR, they solicit donations and rely on sponsors. ProPublica is a national one, while there are half a dozen local web-only papers, like the New Haven Independent, around the country. Sponsors are usually referred to as community partners, and receive token recognition instead of advertising. Rather than having one model, or even three (newspaper, TV and radio) news of the future will come in multiple formats consolidated through the web and funded through a variety of different mechanisms. I believe it will be dependent on the community served. I also believe that Web advertising is undervalued (you get about 1/10 what you get for print ads) and due for a shakeup. Companies like Google have far to much control over what an Internet ad is worth.

  24. Charles Trentelman says:

    A “non profit” model? So I should hold a fund raiser for my column?

    OK, everyone, send me $10 for tomorrow’s look at literature in high schools.

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