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The news is never free
Editor's note: This editorial appeared in the 2/27/13 edition of the Sequim Gazette.
This week one of the Sequim Gazette’s Facebook administrators posted a question, one that’s been much on our mind of late. He wrote: “The Seattle Times is putting up a paywall on their website, charging users to view content. What are your views on this — would you pay to get online news?”
The results were immediate and, for us, stunning.
Not only would our readers not pay for news, but many were offended by the very suggestion.
I admit that being told my work is worthless is more than a little offensive. But there’s something else at work here, something much more important than hurt feelings, to wit:
This is all our fault. We were the ones who taught our readers to believe, as one respondent said, “the news should be free.”
I must admit I’ve watched the downfall of the newspaper business with more than a little frustration.
My father, who was an excellent salesman, taught me a great deal about business. Among his rules of salesmanship is this: a business should never give away its products or services. By doing so, my dad would say, “you’ve established its value.”
Which is to say: zero.
Most people understand that. Who would be so crass as to ask a buddy who happens to be a professional photographer to perform that function gratis at a family wedding?
We in the newspaper biz have in essence volunteered our services. We show up at your events, your meetings. We take pictures and write up the action. Then we post it all free online.
Because we are cordial, we then express our sheer delight that you provided us with the opportunity.
Why wouldn’t you regard this as altogether right and just?
The newspaper business is largely operating on inertia these days — the tendency of objects in motion to stay in motion. There’s little reason otherwise to continue.
That’s because we’ve adopted the failed business model that brought on the Internet boom times of the 1990s and led to the equally spectacular bust.
Web start-ups at the time worked on the assumption that they should first attract eyeballs — lots of eyeballs — by giving away free information. They would thereafter come up with a plan to “monetize” those eyeballs.
Has there ever been a worse idea?
But here we are.
It’s up to those of us who work in newspapers to start educating the reading public on a few hard facts of the newspaper business. I’ll begin by correcting some of the misconceptions expressed by our readers in response to our question.
• “I am pretty sure I can see the news they’re posting on dozens of other newsfeeds.”
Well, no, you can’t. Not unless we make it available. Which we do. You’re welcome.
• “It’s bad enough with all the advertisements framing every spare inch and popups.”
Really? We make a few dollars — a very few — by surrounding our news with ads. Do you really begrudge us getting paid anything at all?
• “We pay for the Internet. What a stupid idea.”
Yes, you pay for your Internet connection. But that is entirely separate from the content you find online.
To illustrate: You also pay road taxes. Do you believe that motels should put you up for free?
It would be inaccurate to leave the impression that everyone is similarly misinformed. One reader wrote, “You have to pay for TV and Internet. Why not newspaper? I don’t personally like it but … .”
In a perfect world — no, make that a fantasy world — the 18 employees at the Sequim Gazette would work for the love of it. But like you, we have to make a living.
Don’t begrudge us that.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.