My business has been asking this question ever since this nifty little thing called the Internet came along. There still isn’t a good answer.
Some news outlets are trying at least one answer: charge a fee to read their news online. A few newspapers have charged Internet user fees for a long time, including the large Wall Street Journal and small Lewiston Tribune, an Idaho paper owned by one of the three men who own the Daily Sparks Tribune. Many newspapers give their content away free online, either because they want to or because they always have and believe it is too late to change. Some newspapers, however, are changing horses midstream. Gannett, the largest newspaper company in the nation, announced in February that all its publications except national hotel pillow sham USA Today would be switching to paid websites. The wave of change hit northern Nevada this week, when the Reno Gazette-Journal posted on its website that the time had come to start charging for full access; freebies would be limited within a 30-day period.
My initial thought was that this is the Tribune’s chance to pick up a lot more online readers. I know that when I am confronted with a paywall at a website, my first steps do not include actually getting out my credit card. I try to find a way around the wall or look for a new source of the same information.
As a guest this week on Eddie Floyd’s “Nevada Matters” radio show, I was asked if the Tribune would ever move this direction with its website. My response: “No,” but I’d be lying if I said the idea hadn’t been kicked around the Tribune’s building. Until about three years ago, the Tribune’s website was bare bones. It lacked the ability and quality to ask people pay to read it. Even today, when our website is a bit more polished, we still feel there is not a reliable model for charging for online content.
But there is more to it than that. For us, the free website is a good way to give people a taste of what we offer. We have a lot of news and photographs on the web, but readers who still want a crossword puzzle, comics, all the ads or the other little things still need to pick up our paper copy. In short, it is kind of a promotional tool.
The timing of the RGJ’s announcement is somewhat opportune for us, as we’re getting close to rolling out a new design to our website. The organization and presentation will be better, so I hope you’ll check it out. We don’t have a firm date yet, but it should be in the next few months. I’ll let you know.
As a journalist who came up in this business at the same time as the Internet, I don’t fear the new medium. It is a change, to be sure, but not one I see as threatening. As a child, I grew up reading the San Francisco Chronicle (I read the Sporting Green when the green ink was dominant on the page) and our little hometown Times-Standard in Eureka, Calif. When I moved south, I read the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times. All of those papers were actually on paper, either delivered to my door or acquired from a newsstand. When I went to college, we began talking about this new computer stuff that was going to change everything. It came along so fast I hardly noticed it, and by the time I graduated it was routine to have my work posted online. It also wasn’t long before my Sunday ritual of unwrapping the paper and thumbing through pages over coffee was changed to clicking through news with my mouse as I drank my morning Joe. It has been like watching an evolution of man occur within my own lifetime.
But the fundamentals — the gathering and consuming of news — hasn’t changed. That’s why I find it so surprising to be asked constantly about the future of newspapers. I got asked the question on “Nevada Matters” and by a University of Nevada, Reno journalism student a few weeks ago. Both times I responded by saying that the “paper” part of “newspapers” might one day go away, but the “news” part won’t go away. There always will be a demand for information, and someone will need to put it together and distribute it. As long as there is demand, someone will find a way to pay for it and make money from it. Organizations all the way from The New York Times to the Sparks Tribune have had to adapt and still are adapting to the new ways of finding the news.
What will it all look like in the end? I have no idea, but either way I and many other people will still need something to read with our coffee.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to work on Sunday’s paper: print first, then post it online.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.