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Charging for the news - finally

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published September 11. 2011 4:00AM

For the past week you have been reading about The Day's new membership model. There are various tiers depending on how many days of the week a reader wants the newspaper delivered to their home or whether they prefer a digital only membership. There are also a variety of incentives offered with memberships, including a "Passport" program offering sales and discounts from local merchants.

But the real news is this - The Day is going to start charging for access to the online content its journalists generate. Full digital access, without home delivery, will cost $10 monthly. While the people who make these decisions are at a higher pay grade than me, I say it's about time.

How does any company make money by giving their product away? Yet that is what The Day and most other newspaper companies have been doing since they ventured onto the World Wide Web in the 1990s. Back then newspapers saw the Internet as the next best big thing, the future of communication. Certainly that proved true.

But newspapers set forth into this new future without a map. Initially the online version carried the same stories as the newspaper, then over time breaking news was introduced, photo galleries, videos, the ability for readers to comment and more. Gone were the spatial and technological limits of the traditional newspaper. Deadlines did not exist. The posting of a story could occur at any time.

So what did The Day and other newspaper companies charge for this arguably superior product?

Nothing.

There was some hope that online advertising would generate the revenue necessary to support gathering and producing online news. While that revenue has increased and the advertising folks come up with ever more clever ways to generate it, the market has demonstrated it is not going to be enough to support the business model.

The digital version of our news company will grow increasingly dominant as people of all ages, but particularly young people, get the information they need on electronic tablets, laptops, smartphones and even old-school desktop computers.

It seemed obvious to me, at least, that eventually we would have to start charging people for it.

It costs money to pay people to gather information, write the stories that place the news in context, provide a forum to discuss and debate issues important to our communities, edit the content, take the photos, shoot the videos and provide the technological expertise to get it all online. It takes a lot of money, actually.

Unfortunately, we've made readers accustomed to free online news. The announcement that The Day would have the audacity to charge for its product has generated reader comments filled with anger, insults, threats to stop reading and predictions of our demise. One reader opined they would be willing to pay $3 monthly for online access - about the cost of a large iced coffee at DD - but they sure wouldn't pay $10.

Only time and the market will dictate if The Day is getting this right.

Some newspapers that immediately placed all their online content behind a "pay wall" saw such large drops in readership that they ended up losing as much or more online advertising revenue than they gained in online subscriptions.

Theday.com will use a metered system. This means readers who are not paying will be able to view some syndicated material and a limited number of staff-generated articles monthly. But those who want full and unlimited access, the ability to comment, criticize (and occasionally praise) what we write, who actually want to support The Day in its mission to inform the community, will have to pay.

Will this work? The truth is no one can say for sure. But giving away our product was not going to work forever, that much I can say with confidence.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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