Another brick in the (pay) wall

In two ways, I am the reason the newspaper business is dying (or at least, struggling). Way the first: A decade ago, I argued (successfully) against putting the Olean Times Herald's online edition behind a pay wall. Meaning that, for the past 10 years, people could read that content for free - until this week, when the  paper (along with the Bradford Era and the Salamanca Press) went behind a pay wall.

Way the second: I haven't purchased a print copy of a newspaper in probably a year. I read newspapers every day - but online. For free (well, not counting the cost of my roadrunner.)

Pay walls are the new trend in journalism. The Tallahassee Gazette announced that, as of July 1, it's going behind a pay wall. (Note, it's a Gannett paper, which means odds are it's going to be royally screwed up). The New York Times is doing so next year. Newsday did it (though early numbers indicated it's going been a huge bust). The Wall Street Journal's done it for years.

A decade ago, I was strongly against this. I was in charge of our paper's web site (if only because I was the young kid who had his own site), and I would get into long discussions with our publisher about charging for our content. He wanted to. I didn't. My argument had nothing to do with the "Information wants to be free" ethos of the early internet.* It had to do with this: I felt that if people had to pay to get news from our website, they wouldn't. They'd go somewhere else. Which, for me, meant that instead of reading my St. Bonaventure coverage, they'd read the Buffalo News'.

(* - There's a great article in The Atlantic this month about how that quote, from a guy named Stewart Brand in 1984, has been taking out of context.)

I believe this has been the reason for the decline of print journalism. Why buy the paper when it's online for free? There's no reason to. It's a dumb business strategy. My thinking back in 1999-2000 was to stay free and that, in a few years, somebody will figure out this whole making money on the internet thing. We're still waiting.

Looking at it from the newspapers' perspective, I see the dilemma. Why go on giving away your content? On the other hand, people are used to it being free. That was my other argument 10 years ago. If people are used to paying for a print edition, they'll pay for it. If they've been getting something for free for 10 years and now you're making them pay ... woah! That's when you lose readers. Also, there's the cut and paste issue. All you need is one subscriber to go to the online edition, copy and paste your article onto a fan message board ... and you've got thousands of readers but only one subscriber. Sure, it's copyright infringement. But what newspaper has the legal resources to go after each infringement. Plus, you'd be alienating your core readers. We saw how well that worked for Metallica and Napster.

Of course, the other problem with this is that newspapers don't make money off circulation. They do so off of advertising - especially classified advertising. Pay wall or no pay wall, the industry is going to have to figure out how to fill the revenue gap left by the fact that it's easier, more effective and FREE to post an ad to sell your bike on Craigslist.

So from the newspapers' perspective, this is a complicated issue. What works for the New York Times won't necessarily work for the Post-Standard, which won't necessarily work for the Olean Times Herald.

But from a readers' perspective, this is an end of a era.

Let's be honest, we as news consumers (and readers of sports pages) have been living the high, fat life for a decade now. As you've no doubt read, I'm a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan. Every week during the season, I get to read the Buffalo News' coverage, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicles' coverage, Chuck Pollock's commentary in the OTH, plus stories about their upcoming opponents in their local papers. All. For. Free. Contrast that to the pre-internet age, when I'd get whatever wire stories the local paper picks up and whatever Sportscenter might have (which, for a team that has stunk out loud for the better part of the 2000s, isn't usually much.)

It's been great.

Say all those papers went behind pay walls. Would I pay for this news? Probably not. Mainly because I'm a poor grad student with a baby on the way. But also, that's a lot of money to spend on a weekly/annual basis.

So that raises the question of what's the best move for newspapers? What is the Olean Times Herald's audience? Is it St. Bonaventure basketball fans looking for wall-to-wall coverage of their beloved Bonnies (that's a huge online readership, at least it was when I was there?) Or is it the people living in Olean, Allegany and Portville, who are affected by the news in the area and (more importantly) can frequent the paper's advertisers?

That's the thing. There is no easy answer. There is no magic bullet. Pay walls are probably the right thing to do. They're probably the smart thing for newspapers. Like I said, giving away your product for free is just a dumb way to do business.

But for news consumers, it's tough to start paying for something you've become accustomed to getting for free.

What's everyone else think?