OpEd: Readers will decide the fate of local news (March 15, 2013)

There’s a saying in the world of “new media.” You’re either free, or you compete with free.

Our readers know — sometimes painfully — that The Times Record requires a subscription for online access to our journalism. Industry types call this a “paywall.”

I am reminded constantly of the pain this causes many readers. They call, write letters and make open comments in online forums saying how ridiculous — and other colorful words — it is to have to pay for news.

In a way, they’re right.

Legacy media such as newspapers always required just a token fee for access. Indeed, U.S. newspapers started out as a “penny press” and even this century cost readers as little as 25 cents a day — more on Sundays, but less overall with delivery and an annual subscription.

That was then, when newspapers owned all the printing presses, newsprint was cheap and gas wasn’t $4 a gallon.

With the advent of the Internet, the moat is gone, replaced by a billion different sources of news catering to niche interests, crafted with widely varying degrees of reliability. In some ways, it’s the new “penny press.”

But the Internet is hardly “free.” I don’t know about you, but I pay $50 a month for high-speed access. I also paid $200 for this snazzy smartphone and have a laptop that cost even more. Newspapers require a free plastic tube.

No wonder readers are feeling chiseled. They pay for the devices, they pay for access, and now they have to pay for content online?

The “newsonomics” of our industry have not been good. Print ad dollars — which used to support 80 percent of a newspaper’s operating budget — have been cut in half just in the last decade. Online advertising has risen — but will never fully replace revenue levels from the print monopoly.

The result has been a slow bleeding of news jobs that affects the product. It’s what I call “the Snickers bar effect” — you’re paying more and getting less. It’s not just the news industry. It’s happening on your tax bills and every trip you take to the grocery store.

To answer the revenue challenge, newspapers have turned more and more to readers. Getting readers to pay for what they consume, a little like a utility does, has proven its own challenge. Yet I am always pleasantly surprised by the depth of the affinity many of our readers have for The Times Record.

Because of efforts such as these in the past five years, the advertising-to-circulation revenue mix industrywide has changed — from 80-20 to more like 50-50. It’s helped stabilize staffing while we continue to look for new ways to serve the public interest.

So, yes, we ask our most engaged readers to pay for what they consume.

Going forward, print is not going away. It still brings in most of the dollars to support our operation, and we value advertising partnerships with all Mid-coast businesses, whether they choose to reach new customers via print or digital. We still believe in print in these transitional times.

Meanwhile, we are also innovating to justify our readers’ higher cost:

— Blogs. Last week, we launched free access to a collection of local blogs from our homepage. It features karate master Jim Bouchard, social blogger Jennifer Barbour, of Brunswick, and plenty of stuff in between. We are constantly adding new ones; maybe yours? Send me your URL and we may post it.

— Comments. This week we began offering subscribers the ability to comment on our stories using Facebook sign-ons. This allows you the ability to spark a conversation about the news of the day, and to see what others think.

— Social. Want to get a list of the top Mid-coast news headlines? Our Twitter feed is posted right on the home page and gives a good summary of the rolling 24-hour news cycle. Or just follow us @MidcoastNews. We also occasionally post full stories on our Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/TheTimesRecord.

— Access. We have been testing various iterations of our paywall and believe the general readership deserves at least a taste of what’s going on in the Mid-coast. So expect more free articles online, and expect new pricing plans in the future that allow a range of contact with The Times Record, from minimal (maybe a couple of free stories plus the first few lines of others); to premium (all stories, or else customized products that allow you to buy only those parts of the daily news report you want).

— Mobile. We are working toward a mobile “app” that delivers not only the headlines but also maps and directions to Mid-coast businesses and attractions.

Whatever the platform — print or digital — we provide readers with the information they need for a deep understanding of their communities. That hasn’t changed — and won’t.

But now more than ever, readers like you are our lifeblood. And like any relationship, it needs both parties if it’s to work.

We promise to continue listening to your needs. We hope you continue to value local news by paying what you can for the information you want.

Bob Mentzinger is managing editor of The Times Record.

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