In the City of San Mateo you can pick up three different daily newspapers for free. Or, you can drop a dollar for the San Francisco Chronicle, which raised its rate today (though the newsrack I found was still only charging $.75)
Meanwhile, the Chronicle is trying to experiment by offering a weekly column by Phil Bronstein that will only appear in print. As if Bronstein alone can save a newspaper that decided to raise prices because not enough people want to pay for it.
There’s been a lot of clamoring that the only way to stem off this plague that’s killed newspaper after newspaper is to start charging for online content. It almost makes sense, people don’t want to pay for something they can get for free so if you charge them to read it online both sides of the business should benefit right?
I doubt it. I suspect that charging for online access will simply result in fewer informed people and more people turning to cable news in lieu of newspapers.
Why? Because people will gladly pay money for their MTV and VH1 celebreality melee. They’ll even check out the news that comes with their cable from time to time. But how many people would pay extra if the news stations were an ala-carte package? Not many, and most of them would probably be in their 30s and above.
That doesn’t mean that young people aren’t interested in the news. Most of us just aren’t willing to pay for it. Everyone I know will grab the local weekly and thumb through it, often cover-to-cover. Our news is filtered through blogs, twitter, and original news websites on a constant basis, and it doesn’t seem like the internet has made us less informed.
But it has made us cheap. Napster taught us we didn’t have to pay for music and newspapers themselves conditioned us to the idea that news should be free. Napster’s gone, of course, but between Pandora, Hulu, and a myriad of other web applications, it’s difficult to persuade us to pay money for something that we can’t feel between our fingers.
Does this mean that we should just accept the death of newspapers and move on? I don’t think so. The Daily Post, The Daily News, and The Daily Journal all distribute free newspapers along the mid-peninsula and the business model appears to be successful.
Until earlier this month I wrote for the Daily Post, and the experience helped me understand that a newspaper serves a role in the community the way a website probably never will. And a free newspaper, especially in transit-rich communities, will be read by almost everyone, from the very rich to the very poor.
Poor circulation may have squeezed the life out of the newspaper business, but if the Chronicle wanted to do a real experiment — instead of trying to figure out whether anyone besides Bronstein’s own family will pay a $1 to read his column — they should try giving the paper away for free and sell more advertising to cover the costs associated with putting out the paper.