Does Free News Content on the Web Still Make Sense?

Let's make this column local local or, as the new conventional wisdom sometimes puts it, hyperlocal: How much would you pay to read The Enquirer online if it quit being free? Or, if the main news section remains free online, which features would you pay

Sep 29, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Let’s make this column local local or, as the new conventional wisdom sometimes puts it, hyperlocal: How much would you pay to read The Enquirer online if it quit being free? Or, if the main news section remains free online, which features would you pay for: Pilcher? Korte? Wilkinson? Daugherty? Radel? Johnston? Op-ed columnists? Callinan tweets? Blogs? Moms?

Are you willing to give The Enquirer your credit card and let them nick you for every article you pull from behind the pay-to-read wall? Rather than those micro-payments, would you prefer a subscription that offered access to paid content?

I don’t know what The Enquirer is planning, if anything, to get you to pay for online news, photos and opinion. Traditionally, the paper has been slow to innovate, embracing Cincinnati’s motto, “Don’t do anything for the first time that you haven’t done before.”

Lots of other dailies are gingerly sticking their toes in the roiled water of paid online content. The Wall Street Journal has, it appears, been most successful, given its niche and the ability of subscribers to write off their costs as business expenses.

The New York Times drew lots of paying subscribers for “premium” content (a bizarre concept if it includes harridan Maureen Dowd and neo-con William Kristol), but the paper dropped the fee after a few months. It was rewarded with significantly increased unique individual readers of its all-free content. Advertisers loved it — Times readers are a prime audience — but, still, the paper is considering charging for something again. It needs the money.

The Minneapolis StarTribune is charging for Vikings NFL coverage. Maybe in the land of “Minnesota Nice” they can do that, but who would be mad enough to suggest the Bengals could command extra payments?

There hasn’t been a debate like this since we learned you don’t love us. We gave you Watergate. “I am not a crook.” My Lai. Valerie Plame and Scooter Libby. Abu Ghraib. “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie.” What’s not to love? But that’s so yesterday. Now we’re asking if we dug our grave by training you to expect news for nothing online.

Here and there, around the country, dailies are looking for new income sources. It’s not clear whether the original idea of “make it free and they will come” made sense. Lots of people read free online content, but advertisers refuse to pay anywhere near as much as for print. The experiment failed if the financial plight of American dailies is any evidence.

The Internet is not the sole culprit. Circulation has been stagnant nationally for years as population and households increased. Classified ads were declining before Craig’s List. In Cincinnati, Enquirer execs awakened to find free magazines with paid ads for vehicles, boats and apartments eating their breakfast and lunch. The Internet wasn’t a factor in that. Rather, it was innovative use of photos that private sellers couldn’t afford in the paper.

So where do we go from here? Analysts say newspaper advertising will shrink further before there is any chance of recovery. Who will be around to appreciate that is uncertain.

And I won’t even get into the misery plaguing local TV stations as advertising slips. They’ve done everything to cut costs except use the same fungible young blonde with every crime scene image on every station.

If you’re among the tens of thousands who pay for the printed Enquirer, what would you expect if some of the online content was hidden behind a pay wall? Total access? If you could get the hidden online content for a reasonable price and the rest free, would you cancel your subscription to the print edition — and worsen the circulation numbers on which ad rates traditionally have been calculated?

Would you just take what’s free and to hell with the rest? Have you already done that? I’d be surprised if we didn’t have that choice before long.

Somehow The Enquirer has to make more money, and there’s nothing wrong with making enough money to fund more news coverage and space. As lame editorials always close, “Time will tell.”

Yeah, but will it tell Who, What, Where, When, Why and soWhat?

Curmudgeon Notes

• Staff and audience survived another semiannual fundraiser by WVXU (91.7 FM). Wisely, Maryanne Zeleznik and her colleagues reminded us how much quality local/network public costs (and that more than 90 percent of WVXU listeners are freeloaders).

• Coincidentally, Columbia Journalism Review reports that Katie Couric’s annual salary is more than the entire annual budgets of NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered combined. Couric’s salary comes to an estimated $15 million a year; NPR spends $6 million a year on its morning show and $5 million on ATC in the afternoon. NPR has 17 foreign bureaus (which costs it another $9.4 million a year); CBS has 12.

• Local news media missed a great photo op Saturday. Mayor Mark Mallory walked through Findlay Market, protected only by his police body guard. I wonder how many suburbanite shoppers found that reassuring.

• In ethics, the "double effect" involves doing something apparently good or right with the risk or knowledge that harm might result. The Enquirer carried a story about Cincinnati Children's Hospital setting up a program to attack childhood obesity. It showed and named a fat, young black girl dancing as part of her effort to lose and control her weight. Her mother was interviewed. Here’s my question: Does the identification of this girl invite bullying and harassment that outweighs the benefits of her appearance in the story?

• What is the point of rushing a story online if it ricochets between nonsense and useless? A post on last week from The Enquirer told me this: “Accident closes I-71/75 lanes at Dixie.” A few details and then fwix/Enquirer adds, “ says the accident occurred at 1:35 p.m. and will take approximately two hours to clear.” OK, let’s play Journalism 101. They got What and Where but missed When. What day?

• In the same way, why rush to report that someone dies of H1N1 flu, especially when no final, authoritative test is available? Earlier this month, we were told a Miami University grad died of H1N1 flu. Later stories say she might have died of something else. Rather than quote the state agency doing the test, news media reported what a Toledo paper and parents said. Over the weekend, we got stories that a Miami freshman died of H1N1. Is that as squishy as reports on the earlier death? What’s the hurry? The Enquirer helpfully devoted a Sunday Forum to explaining H1N1, but daily stories keep us fearful without benefit. This is when reporters should ask authorities, “How do you know?” If there is panic over H1N1, it is in the newsroom?

• Monday, The Enquirer and The New York Times provided smart stories cautioning readers against assuming the H1N1 vaccine causes specific ills. Every day, people have heart attacks and strokes and women miscarry or give birth to children who will be diagnosed as autistic. Some will do that after H1N1 shots. Assuming a causal relationship is a mistake. Coincidence is not cause. Every medicine carries risks. We accept risks associated with aspirin, Tylenol, antibiotics and annual flu shots. The question is whether most of us will be sicker without H1N1 vaccine. It’s a point that the new head of the Food & Drug Administration failed to make a few days ago when she was interviewed on NPR by Diane Rehm.

• Poynter Online — part of the eponymous bastion of journalistic ethics and integrity — also did a less-than-professional job when it rushed a Sacred Heart University poll online without a vital ingredient: Who was polled? The sample always affects the trustworthiness of results. No matter to Poynter, even though it purports to tell us about “trust and satisfaction with the national news media.” And don’t expect conservative critics to ignore the results of this poll, whatever its validity: "A large majority, 89.3 percent, suggested the national media played a very or somewhat strong role in helping to elect President Obama. Just 10 percent suggested the national media played little or no role. Further, 69.9 percent agreed the national news media are intent on promoting the Obama presidency while 26.5 percent disagreed. Some, 3.6 percent, were unsure.” Poynter added, “And 86.6 percent said they believe the news media try to influence public opinion and that they have their own public policy and political positions. This compares to 87.6 percent in 2008 and 70.3 percent in 2003.”

• In another example of camera phones are everywhere, caught a Fox News Channel producer encouraging the crowd to cheer louder during the 9/12 protest in Washington. It said Fox News producer Heidi Noonan was raising her arms to rally the crowd behind Fox reporter Griff Jenkins. HuffPost quoted Bryan Boughton, Fox News Channel Washington bureau chief, saying, "The employee is a young, relatively inexperienced associate producer who realizes she made a mistake and has been disciplined." Why? Because she got caught? HuffPost reported Fox involvement was no surprise. Fox News heavily promoted the protest and took out newspaper ads asking how other news networks could "miss (the) story." That was another classic Fox straw man. Competitors hit back with proof that they covered the protest extensively.

• Almost all of my UC undergrad journalism ethics students want to go into the mainstream news media. This is a shift from some earlier classes, when a significant number hoped for public relations, event planning and other jobs outside of news. It’s counterintuitive. They know the job situation stinks, but they’re in the chase. Meanwhile, program creator/director Jon Hughes has postponed plans to step down next June until, at least, UC’s shift from quarters to semesters is complete.

• Ethical standards I offer UC students are traditional. They begin with the old news service adage, “Get it first, but first get it right.” But that was before “write for the Web and update for the paper.” What has changed dramatically is the speed with which those standards must be applied and uncertainty about how they apply to FaceBook, Twitter and other social media.

For instance, verification is the alternative to screwups like CNN’s when it mistook a Sept. 11 antiterrorist exercise in Washington, D.C., for an attack. Had CNN called anyone — they must have the Mother of All Rolodexes — they would not have told the world about a terrorist onslaught.

• Old and new technology plus a rush to the Internet contributed to red faces when President Obama called Kanye West a “jackass” for West’s brandy-fueled tirade at a Hollywood awards ceremony. ABC’s Terry Moran heard the live feed and tweeted the remark. ABC posted it. It went galactic. CNBC’s John Harwood didn’t use it. He told that he thought it was off-the-record because the remark came before the presidential interview formally started. As whether Moran's tweet violated any ethics guidelines in the age of Twitter, Harwood told he doesn’t “know what the rules are supposed to be. ... My understanding is that he (Moran) tweeted it without realizing it was understood to be off the record.”

• Former UC President Warren Bennis faults the news media and defends Obama’s leadership in a response to the Washington Post query, “About-face in Afghanistan?”

“Sorry, I think the question itself is, well, searching for polite language, extremely misleading. There is a huge different between ‘an about face’ and a change of direction or reconsideration of a decision already made. ... What President Obama is doing now ... is ... clicking the reset key. Now he has a golden opportunity to catch a breath, to review our experiences over the past decade in Iraq, in Afghanistan and the entire roiling Mideast. Not to do that would be a dangerous mistake because, as the saying goes, we might be doomed to repeat the past. How often is it said that generals are always fighting the last war? Right now, a deep review of the past six or seven years is essential.

“I've been brought up to respond to a question with a question: Why do the media (and your question is a splendidly sad example) continually use terms such as ‘flip-flopping’ or ‘an about-face,’ which discredits genuine reflection and reconsideration of the past? Without that reflection we would be unable to freshly imagine future challenges and could easily become blind to the fatal mistakes of the past. Isn't there a crucial distinction between a Hamlet, with his incessant inability to act, and an honest-to-God reviewing of past experiences? The Greeks called Hamlet's condition aboulia, a will-lessness, an inability to act. I don't think that our president has a case of aboulia. He is neither a Hamlet or a Bush, but a reflective leader. We should be, and I think will be, grateful for that.”

Bennis is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business at the University of Southern California, where he is the founding chairman of The Leadership Institute.

• The perils of investigative reporting were underlined last week in Baltimore when ACORN sued the folks who secretly taped the organization’s Tonja Thompson and Shera Williams apparently advising visitors how to break the law. Named are filmmakers James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles — who posed as clients and videotaped the conversation — and is run by Andrew Breitbart, whose Web site first posted most of O’Keefe and Giles’ videos.

Maryland law forbids taping someone without their consent. ACORN wants $500,000 for each employee and $1 million for ACORN itself. Politics aside, the video shows ACORN employees advising O’Keefe and Giles on ways to break the law. If true, well done.

• A British couple went to the news media to pressure social workers who blocked their wedding. Officials say the pregnant teenage bride-to-be is too dumb to consent to marriage. But as her fiancé told The Daily Mail, “She is nowhere near as stupid as social services are making out. ... She can also read and write, although not very well, and was going to college to catch up.”

• News Frontier web site reports another project designed to fill in where news media are cutting back: "Citing the decline of science coverage in the mainstream news media, 35 of the country’s top universities have banded together to launch their own 'news channel' for publicizing their best research.

"In March, the consortium created a Web site,, to showcase edited press releases and stories written by member schools. Founded by the senior communications officers at Stanford, Duke and the University of Rochester, the project has grown and evolved since then, with Futurity now on the verge of inking syndication deals with Google News and Yahoo News.

"Unlike existing wire services for distributing press releases about scientific research, such as EurekAlert! and Newswise, Futurity is aimed at general audience rather than reporters, said Bill Murphy, one of the project’s cofounders and vice president for communications at the University of Rochester. With that in mind, stories receive light editing in order to make them appealing to lay readers, but undergo no additional reporting.”

At UC, spokesman Greg Hand had not heard of participation in but says “we participate frequently at EurekAlert!, sponsored by AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). Sounds similar.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]