Staff Column: Taking the Internet bull by the horns
Almost everyone who reads anything, knows that many newspapers in the United States are in trouble. They are in trouble, because like lemmings, their management has led them into the sea when it comes to the Internet.
Traditionally there have been basically two groups of newspaper publishers. One group wanted to put everything that they put in their printed version of their newspaper on-line. The other group wanted nothing to do with the Internet; to them it was as foreign as putting their content on radio or television.
To me both groups have been wrong.
Newspapers need to be connected to their readers, both emotionally and financially. I have often told people that the bulk of most newspapers revenues come from advertising, and that generally subscription prices only really support the distribution system of the paper. Those comments were not to belittle subscriptions or one copy sales at vendors and newstands, but were based on actual numbers. The problem with having the largest part of the financial support of an information service coming from an advertiser is that it is easy for a large advertiser (or in a small market almost any advertiser) to influence the paper's editorial content. Newspapers that are free even have a bigger problem, because they get no money from readers so the content is entirely financed by advertising. This doesn't mean a lot of brave publishers and newspaper owners over the years haven't done a spot story that has affected an advertiser adversely, but they almost always pay for it in their bottom line.
When I was a kid I grew up on a dairy farm. But we raised more than cows that gave milk. We also had gardens and orchards. We sold some of our produce to neighbors and sometimes passerbys would just stop by our house and ask us if we sold that "wonderful looking corn" in the field across the street.
I remember when I was about 10 I saw some kids on bikes from my school climb across the garden fence and pick some of our tomatoes and start eating them. These were kids I didn't know too well, and at that time late in the afternoon my father was bringing the cows up from the pasture for milking, so I couldn't let him know. So I ran over to the fence and confronted them about stealing the tomatoes. They just kind of looked at me.
"It's right here by the road and anything growing like this should be free," said one of them. "Besides what is it hurting. You've got plenty more to sell here."
I told them if they had just asked I would have given them some and then I asked this.
"Hey, if everyone took some and we didn't get anything out of it, do you think we would want to go to the work of growing a garden next year so guys like you could eat tomatoes for free?"
They looked at me, dropped what they were eating and left. At school the next fall none of them would talk to me, but I had made my point.
I think many newspapers have been letting everyone into the garden to eat tomatoes for free too long. In fact I think both the Sun Advocate and the Emery County Progress have gone a little too far as well. The newspaper business works under the same principal as the tomato garden; if no one wants to pay for it, who will want to provide it? But even with our fairly liberal policy of putting most things on the web we get complaints from people.
A couple of weeks ago someone wanted to see a copy of "the person of the week" article we had run the week before.
"I guess I will just look on your Web site," this woman said to me on the phone.
"Well you can look but it isn't there," I told her. "To see it you will have to buy a paper."
She got kind of huffy with me, and I said, "We just don't put everything online because that would destroy our business."
She came in 15 minutes later and bought a paper.
Another guy sent us a nasty email because we don't have the updated Website with our paper on it online by 1 a.m. of the morning we put out the new edition.
It made me think; I have never had anyone who actually pays for a paper complain to me that we didn't deliver it at 1 a.m. on the day it came out, yet this guy who gets it all for free griped about the timeline on which we operate.
The publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune, Dean Singleton, recently announced that next year sometime his paper will stop putting so much up on the web and will erect a pay wall for the information that is online. A lot of people yelled and screamed when he announced he was going to do this, but it only makes sense. Would Walmart let everyone who wanted to come into their store take nine lbs. of banannas free and hope others who walked in would pay for that same nine lbs? Would McDonald's open up their restaurant and give all the meals away free, but insist that if you wanted a few extra fries then you would have to pay for the whole meal? They would both go broke very quickly.
In the next few months the Sun Advocate and Emery County Progress will be examining the viability of our current use of the web. We will be evaluating how much our Web site takes away from our paper copy circulation, which is paid for by readers who want the entire paper. While we are not in the financial trouble many of the big papers are, we need to look more closely at our business model and where it has taken us and where it will take us in the future. When we make some decisions, our readers will be the first to know.
And just remember, just cause the tomatoes are growing in a garden by the side of the road, doesn't mean they are free.