Gerber: Newspaper to charge for most online content

Gerber: Newspaper to charge for most online content

April 28th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

It would be nice if, instead of paying for a can of Coke, the Coca-Cola Co. simply gave it away for free.

Who wouldn't take a Coke, Sprite, or heck, even a Tab, for free?

But the company isn't going to spend money paying people to produce their drinks just to hand them out free of charge.

But that's just what the newspaper industry has done for most of the last decade. The Chattanooga Times Free Press and numerous other newspapers have essentially given away for free the product we create from scratch every day. While thousands of people buy the paper every day, or pay to have it delivered to their homes, many read it free of charge at timesfreepress.com.

That will soon change. The newspaper will start charging non-subscribers to read the newspaper online - a business model known as a digital paywall.

If you subscribe to the print edition, you'll have unlimited free access to the online paper on the days you get the print edition. And even if you are not a subscriber, you'll still be able, without paying, to read stories in the "Latest News" section and articles by The Associated Press and watch videos. And, free of charge, you'll also be able to read several stories a month outside of those limitations, but much of the newspaper's content will be behind the paywall.

This newspaper has a larger newsroom than most papers our size. We have more reporters and photographers covering our community every day than even some newspapers with greater circulation and serving larger markets. Our printed newspaper is thicker than most of our peers, and we have a far higher ratio of stories to advertisements (at least 50 percent news content, which is high by industry standards these days).

But covering news every day in a 21-county area spread across three states is expensive. It takes a team of reporters, photographers, editors, designers, web producers and others running seven days a week. The newsroom is staffed from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m.

How many other businesses that spend significant amounts of money producing a product would turn around and offer it up for free? Would Chattanooga Bakery give away its MoonPies? Nah. Would Krystal give away its little burgers? No way.

Yet despite the cost of producing news, newspapers in the 1990s - when the Internet was just cranking up - started giving away their stories and photos and, later, videos online. They saw the Web as a way to better compete with television and inform readers quickly. It was suddenly possible to break news all day long, rather than just once a day.

Newspaper companies saw the possibilities, but they failed to see the sword's double edge. Few were farsighted enough to consider that the Web would, for many readers, become the primary source of consuming news. What started out as free remained that way, even when newspapers had to spend money to provide that product.

Now, many daily newspapers are following the lead of large papers such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, both of which have paywalls. The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle are the latest big-city newspapers to add a paywall, both putting one up this summer.

All of Tennessee's other metro daily newspapers are behind a paywall or have plans to do so.

When the Times Free Press launched its website in the early 2000s, the site was only accessible to paid subscribers and featured a handful of section pages and links. By 2005, we starting making portions of it free. For the last several years, the standard online edition has been totally free.

Today, the Times Free Press website has 9 million page views a month, which dwarfs our local online competitors.

Those numbers show we are providing valuable content that no one else in Chattanooga is offering; we have more stories, more in-depth pieces, more variety and more credibility. In short, the Times Free Press is the No. 1 place that people in our area go for news, whether it's the Web or our printed newspaper.

If you want to know about the building collapse in Bangladesh, sure, you can Google that and read all about it. But you'll have to come to the newspaper if you want to know as much as possible about the gunfight at a TVA nuclear plant, or whether that rundown barge will ever be removed from the Tennessee River downtown, or why Chattanooga's most expensive mansion is on the auction block, or how the Shallowford Road prostitution bust unfolded (all stories published in recent weeks).

And you'll have to read the paper for details on the Highway 27 construction, what the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg is offering or the results of the baseball game between Silverdale Baptist and Boyd-Buchanan.

A staff of journalists works hard every day to make sure the newspaper is jammed with information about local government, schools, crime, sports and other stuff that's just plain interesting. Each day, there is information in the Times Free Press that you won't find anywhere else, that helps our readers' lives, keeps an eye on our government officials, keeps up with our sports teams and keeps us informed.

We believe that's a valuable product, one we should not give away for free. No one would expect us to just hand out the printed newspaper without getting paid for it; the same is true for the content we put on the Internet.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.