Part 2: Papers must charge for web sites to survive

(Gerry Storch is editor/administrator of, a political discussion/media analysis site that bridges the gap between a blog and a book. He has been a feature writer with the Detroit News and Miami Herald, Accent section editor and newsroom investigative team leader with the News, and business editor and sports editor for Gannett News Service. He holds a B.A. in political science and M.A. in journalism, both from the University of Michigan.)

By Gerry Storch

What a thrill … I score by landing an article on the primo Internet scholarly journalism review, … a bunch of guys write in to tell me how stupid I am … I guess I’ve finally made it!!!

They told me I was stupid because I contended 1) the nation’s newspapers, which are failing, should go all-Net, 2) concentrate on what hopefully they do best, local news, and, most importantly, 3) stop giving it away for free with their web sites and start charging big-time.

What galvanized me into trying an encore was quite the incisive article by Chris Anderson in the Jan. 31-Feb. 1 Weekend Journal section of the Wall Street Journal. He writes about the proliferation of “free” goods and services online … and devastatingly tears apart this so-called business model, saying it’s about to come crashing down.

Since Mr. Anderson didn’t mention much about newspapers, here I am. This whole absurd concept on how information wants to and has to remain “free” needs more airing.

If the typical desk potato blogger ever summons the energy to go do some reading in the local library (doubtful), he will find he is not charged admission at the door. It’s free to go in.

But of course it really isn’t free, is it … we just pay in a different way … through our taxes.

Did I use small enough words?

One of my posters correctly pointed out that Google, which I had poked some fun at as the biggest cheerleader for the “free” concept, backs it up by giving its services away … its search engine et al … to all of us for free. But Google gives some things away for free and charges for others because if it didn’t, it would probably GO OUT OF BUSINESS. Just like newspapers are. Google doesn’t give its stock away for free; in fact, it unblushingly charges what the market will bear. As of this writing, it’s about $338 per share.

The little town I live in has two pretty top-grade art museums. The Naples Museum of Art charges for admission, the von Liebig does not.

The one that charges does what I think newspapers should do: it creates an excellent, unique product … proclaims it proudly … values it highly … and sets a significant, not-cheap price. It’s $12 during tourist season.

The one that doesn’t charge … if it doesn’t have to, fine. But if it started failing financially and had to start charging, would I criticize? I would not. If it has to charge to survive, it has to charge to survive.

Another poster wondered if I had flunked Economics 101 way back when. Let’s put it to the test and activate that course. If a business is struggling and needs to generate more money (put your thinking caps on), it often will (fill in the blanks) r—- its p—–.

That’s right, it will raise its prices. Sure, it might try a discount coupon deal but that’s a desperation move. Most of the time, it will take the quick and dirty route and raise its prices.

Now we come back to Mr. Anderson. What he says about the Internet free-model biz world’s biggest names is an eye-opener.

Facebook? “An amazingly ineffective advertising platform … applications get less than $1 per 1,000 views.”

Using Google ads to finance your web site? “Will not pay you even minimum wage for the time you spend writing it.”

Google itself? “Venture capital has dried up … (it) is killing products rather than buying them.”

Yahoo? “Can barely support itself.”

YouTube? “Still struggling to match its popularity with revenues.”

Digg? “For all its millions of users, still doesn’t make a dime.”

And what of Twitter, said to be the future of newsgathering … at a limit of 140 characters, this would have to be the ultimate dumbing down of intellectual effort …”After taking over the world, or at least the geeky side of it, it now finds itself having to actually make enough money to cover its bandwidth bills. … The revenue officer has his work cut out for him.”

What all these ventures relied on … and it’s hard to say this with a straight face … was accumulating enough of a horde of mooches and freeloaders so you could sell the business to somebody else. But now, in this economic climate, “the exit doors are closed.”

Does Mr. Anderson have any credentials to impress the OJR reading/posting community? Well, he’s editor in chief of Wired Magazine. That good enough?

Did he give me his insights for free? He did not. I paid for them via my subscription to the Wall Street Journal. Had I plucked the issue off the newsstand, it would have set me back a hefty $2.

Mr. Anderson sees a role for “free” but only in conjunction with “paid.” The WSJ is probably the most prominent example as it is experimenting with blending free and paid content on its web site.

To me, the most important word in that sentence is “paid.” Newspaper publishers often fancy themselves as daring and swashbuckling, but in truth they are a tremulous lot. They have been cowed by a vituperative, vociferous band of bloggers into shying away from even considering establishing online subscriptions … so that, of course, these very same bloggers can continue to get something for free.

Meanwhile, the carnage continues … the sad, sad news of more and more journalists losing their jobs, with little if any hope of finding another.

Time to get a backbone … time to say the online version of your newspaper is worth something and that it is to be measured in the real world by paying for it.

But hey, it’s only a suggestion.

About Gerry Storch

I was sports editor and business editor of Gannett News Service in the USA Today headquarters in McLean, Va., when I and a number of colleagues took buyouts at the end of 2001. Before that, I was a feature writer at the Detroit News and Miami Herald, and Accent section editor and newsroom investigative team leader at the News. I hold a B.A. in political science and M.A. in journalism, both from the University of Michigan.