News For Sale? Online Journalism Fees May Return Executives at major news companies are arriving at the consensus that they will simply have to find a way to charge people who read their articles online. But, as several newspapers have learned, it's not such a simple sell.
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News For Sale? Online Journalism Fees May Return

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News For Sale? Online Journalism Fees May Return

News For Sale? Online Journalism Fees May Return

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If you get a newspaper on your doorstep, you pay for it. As more people switch to reading their news online, media executives are concluding they need to charge for that, too, but as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, they're finding it a tough sell.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Back in March, a Colorado entrepreneur named Kevin Preblud announced plans for a brand new news site called InDenverTimes, but he warned its work had to be valued.

Mr. KEVIN PREBLUD (Entrepreneur): If the people truly believe that they want to hear multiple voice, multiple opinions, then they need to show us that they're willing to pay for it.

FOLKENFLIK: The site was inspired by the closure of the daily Rocky Mountain News by the Scripps Company. Several dozen former Rocky staffers signed up to cover investigative news, sports, features, the arts, to create something approximating a newspaper online. Excitement built. They could make a go of it less than a fourth of the Rocky's old circulation and at a fraction of the cost. All they needed were 50,000 people willing to pay about five bucks a month.

Mr. DAVID MILSTEAD (Former Business Columnist, Rocky Mountain News): It ended up below 3,000 subscriptions.

FOLKENFLIK: David Milstead is a former business columnist for the Rocky Mountain News who had agreed to write for InDenverTimes. Milstead says he's lost a lot of illusions.

Mr. MILSTEAD: We liked to delude ourselves that everybody getting the paper was reading our wonderful investigative articles about city council or what have you, when in fact, a whole lot of people were doing the Jumble, or looking for yard sales on Saturday.

FOLKENFLIK: InDenverTimes is now a shell of its promised self, and its experience raises a few questions. First, are people to pay for online news?

You've heard it before, no doubt: reporting, editing and presenting the news costs a lot of money. A lot of early efforts to charge for online content failed, and most news outlets served up articles for free when they launched stand-alone Web sites.

Some say that's the way the Web works: the nearly instantaneous sharing of information. Others say that's online journalism's original sin and has to be overcome. Jody Lodovic is president of MediaNews Group.

Mr. JODY LODOVIC (President, MediaNews Group): You're not going to change perceptions overnight, but we've got to start somewhere.

FOLKENFLIK: MediaNews owns papers, including the San Jose Mercury News, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Denver Post. Paid print subscriptions have dropped, so Lodovic hopes people who aren't subscribers will pay just a little for each article they read online. And he says…

Mr. LODOVIC: If you nickel-and-dime them enough, maybe they'll realize one day, you know, this newspaper has got a lot of compelling information, and unless I subscribe to it, I'm not going to get it all.

FOLKENFLIK: That watchdog journalism so prized by newspaper editors? Jay Hamilton says most readers don't value it nearly as much. Hamilton is director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University.

Mr. JAY HAMILTON (Director, DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, Duke University): When you think about why somebody might read a newspaper, it may be, help me do my job, help me find something to buy, I would just like to know that because it's entertaining and help me be a better voter. The first three markets work pretty well. The fourth one is problematic. Most people don't follow politics because, in a statistical sense, their vote doesn't matter.

FOLKENFLIK: So that raises a second key question, of what kind of news people might pay to read online. Hamilton says there's one very specific niche.

Mr. HAMILTON: If you are offering information that can help a person make money right now, which describes a lot of the information that's behind the pay wall at The Wall Street Journal, you can charge for it.

FOLKENFLIK: People can pay to read papers on the portable Kindle from Amazon, but only a modest number do. Former Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz is promoting an iTunes model for news, yet people who pay for music online listen to songs repeatedly. News articles are far less likely to be re-read, which may limit their value.

But the news continues its move online. The Hearst company stopped publishing the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and turned it into a Web-only outlet with a much smaller staff. The site offers some original reporting, analysis and blogging and also links to a lot of stories from other sites.

Michelle Nicolosi is executive producer of the She says is has to be selective to succeed.

Ms. MICHELLE NICOLOSI (Executive Producer, Maybe newspapers have had the luxury of doing a lot of things that maybe are duplicative and don't necessarily need to be done so that if you downsize a newsroom, you might not necessarily be eating away at the core of covering the community and following the money and being in those meetings that you need to be in.

FOLKENFLIK: Internal figures show the's audience has actually grown, yet Nicolosi doesn't charge readers. Back in Denver, a chastened David Milstead is involved in yet another online venture that will ask readers for money, but Milstead says his expectations are more modest.

Mr. MILSTEAD: So if you want a full-time income and benefits and a secure job, you may be forced to say goodbye to journalism.

FOLKENFLIK: Either that or to become one of the first to get people to pay good money to read the news online.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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