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Published: Sunday, 12/16/2012

Charging for online news content makes sense

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

John Gomolski, a former Toledoan now living in South Carolina, contacted The Blade with a familiar complaint:

“Why, after all these years, do you feel the need to charge for reading your paper online? I realize it’s free if you take the print edition; however, for people out of state that is not practical.“

That’s a good question — and one that has its origins in a mistake this and almost every other newspaper in the nation made.

Hard to imagine today, but there was a time when people didn’t have smart phones in their pockets that also gave them news bulletins and could be used as encyclopedias and cameras.

We’re talking about the far distant world of, say … 1995.

That’s also about the time when newspapers began putting their content on the World Wide Web, the invention that made the Internet user-friendly and has revolutionized our lives.

Everybody, including the newspaper industry, was so entranced by the exciting world of the Internet that they decided to put what they did online, for everyone to see for free.

“That was a huge mistake,” Joe Zerbey, the president and general manager of The Blade said. “Who in their right mind would give away the fruits of their labor? Well, newspapers did just that.“

Eventually, newspaper executives began to realize that as more people went online, they stopped taking the newspaper, once they found they could get everything in it for free.

“If everyone read our news free and didn’t subscribe to a printed version, how would we pay our newsroom staff?” Mr. Zerbey asked, before adding, “There wouldn’t be one.”

“As The Blade morphs into the digital world,” he said, “we have to build a business model that makes financial sense.” The Blade thinks they have done that; the newspaper offers complete access to its entire paper online for six months for only $4.99.

After that, the newspaper will then charge $4.99 a month, or less than 17 cents a day, to read the newspaper online. Print subscribers continue to get all the electronic platforms for free.

Whether Mr. Gomolski thinks that a good deal or not is entirely up to him. But to your ombudsman, 17 cents for an entire, full service, locally produced newspaper sounds pretty cheap.

William Evans had another question about the online version of The Blade. He also didn’t want to pay for an electronic version and had the impression that advertisers pay the newspaper every time anybody looks at The Blade online.

“I know you are paid some amount each time I log in and would imagine that it is not as much as if you were paid for the delivered version, but is still some amount,” he wrote.

His letter was forwarded to Mr. Zerbey, who unlike the reporters, editors, and this ombudsman, is in charge of the business operations of the newspaper. “The Blade does not get paid an amount of money each time you log in,” he said.

However, they do keep track of the number of “unique visitors” who look at the Web site, and that helps determine how much advertisers are charged; the more people they reach, the more they pay, which is how advertisers traditionally always were charged.

There is, after all (sadly) really no such thing as a free lunch.

Steve Demuth, a reader from Bowling Green, was bothered by an item in a story that ran Dec. 8, about a new group, the Ohio Action Coalition, which visited U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s Toledo office and called on Republicans to, as the headline said, “get with the program” and raise taxes on the wealthy.

Mr. Demuth didn’t question any of Blade Politics Writer Tom Troy’s reporting. But at the end of the story he quoted Caitlin Dunn, a spokesman for the senator, who disagreed with the charge that President George W. Bush’s tax cuts favored the wealthy.

She argued they made the tax code “more progressive.”

Allowing that statement to stand unchallenged irked Mr. Demuth. “Isn’t the job of a journalist to help the public make more sense of the context or the claims of the actors? In no way, shape or form have I ever heard the Bush tax cuts described as progressive.”

Reporter Troy said the senator’s folks were entitled to respond, since the Ohio Action Coalition had attacked Mr. Portman and the Republicans, and explained that the claim that the tax cuts were more “progressive” was based on evidence that higher income tax payers are now bearing a higher share of the tax burden.

Mr. Troy is right that the senator’s camp deserves the chance to respond, and any story that explored the merits of all the charges and countercharges would end up longer than War and Peace.

But if space permitted, your ombudsman would have liked to have seen a brief mention here as to what the “progressive” label was based on, coupled with a sentence saying “Democrats dispute these claims” or words to that effect.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office, 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don’t leave me an email address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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