Big news from the colliding worlds of newspapers and the Internet. Starting today, the Stockton Record's online news service is no longer free.
This qualifies as "big news," because this decision goes straight to the heart of a significant question for the future of our democracy: what is happening to newspapers, and what will their future be?
For years, newspapers have often been the victims of the Internet age. It takes significant time and resources (read: money) for newspapers to produce high-quality journalism. Yet for years, papers have put that content online, and usually for free — often with added perks, such as this blog, to electron-savvy readers.
While ad revenue from online sources trickled in, content was pouring out, with bloggers, news aggregate sites like Drudge, and anyone with a wireless card to spread someone else's product without restriction.
Furthermore, readers expect that kind of free access. The only way to turn Web surfers off faster than pop-up ads is to charge for online content. And newspapers need readers. But to stay in the business of breaking news, they also need paying readers.
This presents an obvious dilemma — how do you get people to pay for something they expect to get for free?
Some news organizations have features on their Web sites asking readers for donations. Not very successful, that one. Others have switched to the idea of charging a subscription fee — just like for a print newspaper. (Note: The Tracy Press does not charge those living within its delivery area a subscription fee for its print edition.)
The Record has tried the latter, and it's an avenue many more newspapers might take in an effort to control their content and remain competitive. While it might irk those who expect the content for free, producing that content is decidedly not free.
So readers shouldn't be surprised if their favorite news sites start charging. It's the next generation of online news.