One of the most persistent complaints we have at The Times is from readers who access our website, www.gainesvilletimes.com, only to discover that they are expected to have a subscription in order to read the stories published there.
This seems to be particularly true of those who access the website through social media, such as Facebook. A common complaint is one that goes something like, “I’m not paying to read anything online. News should be free. I’ll go somewhere else.”
Often, if they are trying to access a story through Facebook, they’ll ask for someone who does actually have a subscription to copy and paste it, or tell them what it says. Occasionally, someone will.
Such complaints are frustrating to those of us at the newspaper. We don’t understand why someone would expect us to provide the results of our considerable efforts toward collecting news at no charge, nor how they think we could remain a viable business if we did so.
When we order a truckload of paper on which to print The Times, we expect to pay for it. Same with ink. We pay for access to the digital world through an internet service provider, so that we can post stories online for others to read. We pay some 100 employees, who in turn pay for products they buy or services they need.
So why would others expect the fruit of our labors to be available for free?
Media companies like The Times have two primary products upon which we depend financially. We produce news and information for the consumption by the public we serve, and we provide a delivery system for the advertising messages of other businesses.
Advertisers pay us for delivery of their messages. Print subscribers, who choose to have a newspaper delivered to their homes, pay us for their subscriptions. Those who purchase a printed newspaper from one of our vendors pay to buy it. So why do online customers expect it for free?
The answer, it seems, is that there is such an abundance of information available on the internet that is free. As a result, consumers think it all should be that way. Unfortunately, that business model doesn’t work for everyone.
In fact, nothing to do with accessing the internet is truly free. If you use a smartphone, you pay a provider for service and for data. If you access the internet at home or work, you pay a cable or phone company or some other service to gain access to the digital world. In addition, you pay for a computer, tablet or some other device to get you that “free” information.
So right up front, you’ve got a financial investment in “free” content, and it’s usually a lot more than the cost of buying a printed newspaper every day, or paying for a digital newspaper subscription.
Once you’ve gotten to the internet, you can indeed find thousands of places with free content. There are some legitimate online news sources that are free, but they tend to be national in scope, with a high volume of online traffic that allows them to subsidize free readership by charging much higher rates for online advertising. Most small community newspaper companies don’t fall into that category.
And then there are “aggregators,” which are websites that don’t generate any real information themselves but rather find stories of interest on other websites to which they link you, and in doing so expose you to the avalanche of advertising from which the aggregator makes money by taking advantage of the work done by some other source.
Such sites may have links to legitimate informational content, often originating from newspapers; or, they may be filled with misleading “fake news” or tantalizing “click bait” that wants nothing more than to have you click on some enticing headline in order to work your way through 10 frustrating pages of pop-up ads only to find the “story” presented doesn’t match the headline at all.
When I was a kid, my dad and I frequented a barber shop with a sign prominently displayed that said, “We have no quarrel with those who sell for less. They know what their stuff is worth.” That same sentiment applies to many of the free news sites on the web.
We put forth a lot of effort to cover the news in the North Georgia area for our readers. We provide coverage of issues that are important to those in the communities we serve that is more complete and in-depth than any other news source around. We do so knowing The Times has a reputation to uphold, and that our credibility is the single greatest asset we have as a company.
At the same time, we cannot stay in business if we give away our work product for free. A lot of effort, energy and money goes into reporting news about local government, schools, crime, community activities, high school sports and the people who make North Georgia a special place to live and work.
In return, we ask those who want to read us to subscribe, whether it be in print or online. We do not believe those who purchase our printed newspaper should be expected to pay while others are given access to the same information for free online. Everyone who does subscribe to our printed product is automatically given full access to everything on the web.
For less than $10 a month you can subscribe to The Times online, read everything we have to offer there are often as you want, and never again have to ask someone who does pay to cut and paste a story so you’ll know what it says. That’s a weekly cost that’s less than the price of a soft drink and a candy bar. We think it’s a pretty small price to pay for credible news and information about the community you call home.
Norman Baggs is general manager of The Times.