COMMENTARY: Paying the cost of real news

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

How much can — or should — a reader afford to pay to access real news? That is becoming an increasing — and serious — question in an era of “fake news” for those of us who like to read traditional newspapers from out of their area and other quality publications online.

Tim Page, former music critic at the Washington Post and now Professor of Journalism and Music at University of Southern California, and I had an interesting exchange on Facebook awhile back. He posted a review from the New York Review of Books regarding two books about pianist Van Cliburn. Before Tim changed links, halfway through the review readers got a notice that said if we wanted to continue reading we would have to pay $4.99 (Tim subsequently posted a different link that took the story from behind what’s known in the media business as a paywall).

Many papers (probably including mine — I’m not sure because I subscribe to the Pasadena Star-News) — use this policy. A few offer you a small number of “free” reads and then ask you to pay. Some don’t even do that.

For years, to cite one example, I used to enjoy Martin Bernheimer’s reviews in the Financial Times of London but it’s the only reason I read the FT. The FT used to allow a small number of free reads each month. However, about a year ago I learned that if I wanted to click on any of the reviews of Bernheimer (a former Pulitzer Prize-winning former music critic of the Los Angeles Times, for those who don’t know the name), I would have to pay $4.79 per week for the privilege (the FT does offer an “introductory of $1.00 per week but it’s only good for four weeks).

Likewise the Washington Post: In this case I read E.J. Dionne, who posts twice a week, and Anne Midgette, the Post’s classical music critic, who also posts a couple of times a week. After a history of being allowed to read those folks for free, the Post now wants me to pay $99 per year for the privilege, along with anything else in the Post I find interesting and/or important.

The problem is one of economics — mine. My wife and I subscribe to three daily newspapers — the L.A. Times, Pasadena Star-News and New York Times — two monthly magazines and one weekly. We pay about $30 per month for all six publications (the NYY is an electronic subscription). That’s at the limit of our budget; we may, in fact, begin to cut back as rising costs of living invade our senior income. Is it worth it to add the Post for $8.50 a month for what amounts to 30 posts a month? I finally deciced — reluctantly — yes, but I’m going to keep track of my posts during the year.

Neither type of media policy — totally free or significant monthly subscriptions allowing me to read one person’s columns (which in the case of Martin Bernheimer averages about three per week, max) — makes any logical sense. Yes, there are expenses involved with newspapers maintaining Web sites, although papers assiduously track what are known as “clicks” or “hits” to persuade advertisers but for which readers receive no remuneration.

All of this got me thinking about a series of Blog posts I wrote in 2010 on this subject. The suggestion I made is just as logical to me today as it was back in 2010.

A major problem for many online readers is that they don’t want the entire newspaper, especially ones that are from out of town. That’s a blessing and a curse. As I noted, my wife and I subscribe to the print editions of the Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. Reading through these two papers give us a breadth of local knowledge that we can’t get easily through the online edition. That lack of overall knowledge is one of the downsides of getting all your news online or solely by other electronic means. However, it’s less of an issue for out-of-town publications.

On the other hand, most of the Blogs/columns/reviews that I read are written for two specific purposes: classical music and golf. For example, I used to log onto Jeremy Eichler, music critic of the Boston Globe, but I have no interest in reading the rest of the Globe. The Globe’s paywall policy means I no longer read Jeremy’s writings.

There are some exceptions and a few publications are doing an excellent job of melding the two media. I read dozens of columns in the online edition of Sports Illustrated but wouldn’t think of cancelling the print edition (the online version is part of my print subscription). For one thing, there are different stories in both, although that difference is narrowing. For another, SI’s still photography is reason enough to subscribe.

Few print newspapers that I read do a good job of referring people to their online editions (and vice-versa), which is odd when you consider that there are many items can be run online for which there is no space in the printed paper.

I think we need to find ways for readers to get online content while, at the same time, providing income to the media sites and, equally important, to the people who actually create the posts themselves.

The sheer scale of hits on the internet (several billion a day, according to one study) makes economies of scale possible, but should also provide a financial incentive for one of the national newspaper associations to get involved by setting up a financial clearinghouse (this seems like a great use for dues the media outlets pay to the association). Here’s how it might work:

A reader logs onto an online site for free and sees a headline and one- or two-sentence blur/description of the article (this is typical of media Web sites today). If you subscribe to the paper (either to its print or online edition), there’s no additional cost to read the articles.

If you don’t subscribe and want to read the entire article, you pay a nickel. Two cents goes to the publishers’ association (a portion of that will be used to offset the charges from the reader’s credit card company, Apple Pay or someplace like that to bill the customer). One cent goes to the publication or other entity hosting the Web site. Two cents goes for the article’s author.

For the reader who reads 10 posts every day (a large number in my opinion — I look at more sites than that but don’t actually read that many stories each day) the total adds up to about $15 a month. For the reader who wants to read quality news, that’s a doable figure. Multiply that number by several billion and everyone gets a piece of a large pie. Moreover, if I decide that I’m reading a site regularly and for more than classical music that “teaser” might encourage me to become a subscriber to the publication.

The most important thing is that publications would gain a monetary incentive to take online readers more seriously, even those in supposedly marginal genres such as classical music. That’s a bottom line to which we can all subscribe.

Your suggestions for alternate concept are encouraged; use the comment box below.

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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