Why Print Pubs Shouldn't Charge for Old News (listen up!)

The New York Observer recently made the regrettable choice of charging for access to its online editorial archive. Now links to stories that may only be a week old become invalid (some older links are still working, since the Observer has thankfully not removed access to many pages stored in the old manner). Instead, all new links lead to columns that are updated weekly, so finding old Observer stories will require doing a new search within the membership-only archives. Even subscribers are denied access.

As it is, the Observer is a top-notch paper that's sadly not read outside of a rather limited circle. By restricting access by using fee-based archives, the odds of the Observer increasing its readership and relevance through links from other websites and blogs drop dramatically. (Note: The Observer's website is full of Java errors and programming quirks, and their "email this story" function rarely works, but their articles are superb and the paper has a good sense of humor, I swear! And I'm not just saying that 'cause they send me a free print issue every week in the mail.)

The conundrum of how subscription-based publications can make money when all its content is free online is a tough one. But when a local newspaper like the Observer offers all of it's new content for free but charges for old content -- while also making it impossible for other web editors to set up a permalink to a particular story -- it's accomplishing nothing but shooting itself in the proverbial foot. Can a fee-based system really work for this kind of site?

At least 70% of the Observer's content could appeal to a national (albeit liberal) audience, which could in turn lead to national advertising. Properly using the Internet to reach a larger swath of the public and a younger demographic could release moribund print pubs from the constraints of the random newsstand and a 60-year-old subscriber base. If only they can survive the short-term profit loss while finding a better business model for the new millennium, instead of locking their content away in useless fee-based archives or forcing bloated subscription rates on every would-be visitor.

In the future, publications must look toward advertising -- especially content-relevant text ads like those provided by Google's Adsense and online versions of all ads appearing in the print edition of the pub -- to fund their projects. As an example, newspapers such as the Village Voice, online-only magazines like The Smoking Gun , and Internet services like Google are able to survive and profit without charging user fees. (Having a slick, subscriber- and newsstand-based print version of a publication to hawk to online readers is also a nice touch -- I don't think the Internet will ever completely replace utilitarian nature of having a magazine to read at the coffee shop or on the train or couch or wherever.)

Admittedly, web-only sites like Salon.com are still faring rather badly despite strong advertising and subscription pushes in recent years. But if it were impossible to find old Salon articles for free through permanent links, I'd wager the site would be completely dead. Yes, Salon forces non-paying readers to look at an ad before reaching the intended link, but at least they make it easy for other web editors to link to the appropriate page.

The only sites that can continue to charge readers are those offering extremely hard to find information and absolutely unique tools -- a lot of industry/trade publications come to mind, but not much else. Some prestigious publications with highly sought-after archives can get away with charging for old stories, but they pay a price in terms of power and readership: Newspapers like the New York Times are not search-engine friendly, and outside of the Google News search engine, it's rare for a New York Times article to appear among top search results, if at all.

The NY Times has the same problem as the NY Observer -- with stories rotating into the fee-based archive every seven days, it's pointless for other website editors to link directly to the sacred prose and taradiddles of the Times. So when a NY Times story has finished it's week-long run, it's effectively dead to the world, and every link to that story from outside sites dies a quiet death. And without search-engine optimization, the story shall never surface again, unless another website copies (i.e., steals) the entire article or someone specifically begins poking around the archives, credit card in hand .

Google is working with the Times to make their editorial archives more search-engine friendly, and magazines like Variety let Google search their files so the Goog can offer search results for content that can only be read with a subscription. But this raises another paradox: If new information is the most sought-after, and old info is often forgotten or irrelevant, why charge for old news when so much of the new news is free?

The general public might be willing to pay to read breaking reports on NYTimes.com, but who wants pay for old Times articles other than a reporter researching a story or college kids looking for sources for their term papers? Actually, journalists and students are better advised to use LexisNexis and Google Scholar for those types of pay-per-article searches -- NY Times stories are stored in Lexis along with an abundance of other material from 36,000 sources -- leaving stand-alone paid archives utterly unprofitable and pointless.

When will the old print magnates finally catch on to the needs of a generation that demands information to be instantaneous and free?


Related Articles:

An article at PressThink: the Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine, asks "Will the Greensboro Newspaper Open Its Archive?" One response: "As the decision makers see the traffic and better understand the potential, the argument over free archives will be easier to win."

In the New York Press essay "Come for the Lies, Stay for the Verbs," J.R. Taylor asks, "What will become of the online New York Times?" He answers his rhetorical inquiry thusly:

"Nobody cares. Still, debate continues at the Times between providing free online access to the articles, or beginning a monthly subscription charge. In the process, we get some real insight into the end of Old Media.

"The Times is typically missing the point. The paper's readership isn't declining because its potential audience is online. Its readership is declining because online access makes the Times useless, while also demonstrating that the Times is more obviously flawed than ever before.

"Why would someone read Adam Nagourney's misleading interpretations of election polls when they can just access the raw data? In that same spirit, an online transcript of a White House event provides more news and less deception than any Times article. Plus, you don't have to wait three weeks for the inevitable funny correction....

It won't be long before the Times has to pay people to read the thing."


Anonymous said...

One reason quality magazines can charge is because they proofread and edit. See your second paragraph, third line: " it's" means "it is"; You want the possessive, "its."

See the article listed above yours for use of the apostrophe.

Lucas Brachish said...

Agreed, it would be nice to have a fulltime proofer/editor reading this blog. It would also be nice if so many webblog commenters weren't Anonymous. And if “commenters” was a real word, I’d be pleased. But now that you've pointed out my its/it's typo, I’ve fixed it. So you proofed the article for me (thank you). Does that mean I should now charge for the story?

If I were writing here full time, I would need to charge or starve, but one of the points I was trying to make above is that with so much information available online for free, how long will Old Media really be able to get away with charging fees? For many, dealing with a smattering of typos and regurgitated news will be worth not having to fork over credit card numbers for the honor of reading the source articles written by the pro journalists who are doing all the groundwork, no matter how deserving those newsmen are. New systems of revenue have to be discovered for both the old and new media, or the system will collapse upon itself.

Also, is the majority of moth-eaten (archived) news really worth money, or is it the fresh news that's $$ worthy? The trend toward giving daily news away and putting up an archive tollbooth for day-old bread is a strange one, and in countless cases it ruins the connective tissue of the Internet since links are lost when a news page's address is switched to a members-only archive. The way information is best disseminated on the World Wide Web cannot be ignored.