Looking For 'Oxygen,' Small Papers Erect Digital Pay Walls The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle are the latest big newspapers embracing a pay model for Web content that had been free. But around the country, more small papers, like the Chinook Observer in Washington state, have also started charging for their digital content in a bid for economic survival.
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Looking For 'Oxygen,' Small Papers Erect Digital Pay Walls

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Looking For 'Oxygen,' Small Papers Erect Digital Pay Walls

Looking For 'Oxygen,' Small Papers Erect Digital Pay Walls

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The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle recently said they will start charging readers for online content, joining papers like the New York Times. Large papers have made this move work because their websites, like their papers, offer a wealth of unique content. The same holds true for small community newspapers, and that's the topic of today's bottom line in business. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Ashley Gross reports.

ASHLEY GROSS, BYLINE: Steve Rogers is a commissioner for Pacific County along the coast of Washington State. The county is about the size of Rhode Island but only has 20,000 residents. In the parking lot of the McDonald's in the town of Long Beach, Rogers climbs into his truck to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi.

STEVE ROGERS: Got enough room?

GROSS: Yeah. He pulls out his iPad to show all the news he reads online.

ROGERS: Seattle Times, P-I, Washington Post, New York Post, Christian Science Monitor...

GROSS: But his favorite news app is the Chinook Observer. It's a weekly newspaper with a print circulation of 5,500, published here in Long Beach. Rogers reads everything in it, from a front-page story about plans for a marijuana grow operation all the way to job ads. He subscribes to the print version so he gets the app for free. But he's thinking about going to a Web-only subscription.

ROGERS: I had a little bit of reluctance at first because we have the sense of the Internet being free. Well, nothing's free. It costs - they have to hire people to do all these things.

GROSS: The Chinook Observer office is a quick walk from the windswept Pacific coastline. Today the paper has just come out, and people are walking in to plunk down four quarters for a copy. Hey, so how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Great. How are you? Did you see your ad?

GROSS: In back is editor and publisher Matt Winters. He's been here long enough to remember how it felt when his paper first went online in the late '90s. All of a sudden their stories could be read in Australia or Russia.

MATT WINTERS: We, as everybody did in our industry, just loved the idea because we're all just inherently, in the business, have this passionate desire to get information out to people and tell stories.

GROSS: After a while, Winters says, some harsh economic realities became clear. Digital advertising is not lucrative, and print circulation has been falling.

WINTERS: Out here in the hinterlands we were sort of looking at this model of, gee, you know, we're giving away all this stuff that we've agonized over the course of the week to produce. How does this compute?

GROSS: The answer is, it doesn't. So a paywall. In fact, more small papers have started charging than have large papers. That's according to research by Mike Jenner, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. He says it's partly because many small papers have a news monopoly. The Chinook Observer is the only one covering the Long Beach City Council. Still, Jenner says pay walls aren't magic.

MIKE JENNER: It's not going to replace the lost advertising revenue, but it's, you know, at this point these newspapers are looking for oxygen, and this is a little flow of oxygen for them.

AMANDA FRINK: Hi, Jerry. It's Amanda at the Observer.

GROSS: Amanda Frink is a reporter here. She has covered everything from a murder investigation to the annual cranberry harvest. Frink says she's glad the paper has a pay wall now, but still...

FRINK: I think eventually it's going to become the point where maybe there aren't newspapers anymore. So this whole pay wall transition is necessary to keep jobs like mine. I certainly hope it does.

GROSS: The Chinook Observer has been around since 1900. The paper's staff hopes they're taking the right steps to make sure it's still here at the close of this century. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Gross.

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