Sunday, September 29, 2013

Paying for the product

Starting on Tuesday, you'll have to pay $9.95 per month to read The Dispatch online, unless you already subscribe to the print edition of the newspaper. Then you get the digital Dispatch for free as a part of your subscription.

Up until Tuesday, readers — whether they were print subscribers or not — had perhaps nearly 10 years of free access to the online paper, which probably reinforced their supposed sense of entitlement about getting a source of their news for no cost. Consequently, some readers stopped subscribing to the printed Dispatch exactly because they could get their news for free online.

That's not particularly good business sense if you happen to be a business. How long would the Candy Factory last if it gave away its raisin clusters for free?

By charging a fee for its online edition, The Dispatch is joining many other print publications across the country in charging for their product. This has become a necessity brought on, ironically enough, by the Internet. The Internet not only serves as a conduit for carrying news, but also for generating news — sometimes by creditable sources, other times by not so creditable sources. And this conundrum is with what newspapers have been competing, and consequently digital journalism has put print journalism in a tilt toward decline.

Imagine that. Charging for a product, like it was gasoline. Charging for a service (the distribution of information), like it was medical care. Isn't that the nature of capitalism? Isn't that free enterprise? Isn't that the American system?

When word broke two weeks ago that The Dispatch (an annual North Carolina Press Association award-winning publication, by the way) would be charging for its services, much reader reaction — predictably — was mostly negative. Some wanted to know why online advertising wasn't paying for the service, and why not increase those advertising rates? Some suggested they could get their local news from other sources. It went on and on.

The way I'm figuring it, the digital Dispatch, at $9.95 per month, comes down to about 47 cents per day (based on 21 print days per month). That's still cheaper than the print edition. Plus, the online paper offers videos, photo galleries, an instant archive to past stories, reader forums, links to other sources and an opportunity for immediate reader comments to each story.

Some readers were confusing paying for the online Dispatch with paying for the Internet. That's so far out into left field I don't even know how to react to that.

I'm not a businessman, but I think I remember hearing that online advertising generates perhaps 10 percent of a newspaper's income. That's unsustainable if the paper wants to stay in business. And how long do you think advertisers will remain online if their rates increase?

Some readers said they would turn to other news sources, like neighboring newspapers or television stations. Good luck with that. Out of town sources can't come near to providing the local coverage as the local paper can, if for no other reason than they either cannot afford the on-site resources that are needed or are unwilling to pay (there's that word again) for maintaining branch offices. Out of town sources tend to be incomplete and cursory at best. I guarantee you will not be as fully informed about Lexington if you go out of town for your news.

Television? The other night I was watching a telecast of a local news story — just one Lexington story in a half-hour broadcast — that credited The Dispatch as its source. Oh my. So some people are willing to give up The Dispatch to have somebody from out of town read them a few Teleprompter lines from a single story that came from The Dispatch? That logic eludes me.

I'm not really surprised by most of the reader reaction to charging a fee for digital news. This type of expressed dissatisfaction also happened whenever the paper increased its rates for the print edition.

I guess it's a way for those in the business to gauge just how much the readers appreciate the paper after all.

Here is a video that illustrates everything:

(Full disclosure: I was employed by The Dispatch for 30 years as a sports writer and sports editor before retiring in 2006. It has always been my feeling — and still is — that The Dispatch is one of the best small-town newspapers in the state.)

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