I am a news junkie. My main sources of information are the New York Times (I subscribe), Wall Street Journal, NPR, and Hartford Courant, and CT News Junkie. I supplement that with news from my twitter and Facebook feeds. Among these sources the only one I pay for is the New York Times and I have a subscription to Wired magazine. The rest of these are free online. As a consumer this makes me happy because it saves me money and I get to enjoy these products without cost. Yet I think it may be destroying journalism.
Collecting the news and posting it online is not free. I pay a yearly fee to host this blog on a service that is reliable and does not serve advertisements. The underlying content system is free since it is open source. I suppose I could choose to host it on the Wordpress.com website and save money but I enjoy having the ability to use the web server for other purposes and to learn the underlying technologies. It also takes time and effort to write the posts. In a professional news organization where they spend time and effort conducting research and interviews it is easy to see how these free websites get expensive for the creators.
Today there seems to be two ways to pay for news: advertising and subscriptions. The New York Times is demonstrating that subscriptions are just as important as advertising in the web age. I am inclined to agree. I think making people pony up some money for their news increases their commitment to the organization. Their model of providing some free content and then charging for extra seems to be effective. I also think there is some merit to charging micro-payments for access to old articles. My prediction is that most of the free news sites will eventually shut down or convert to the paid model.
What happens if they do not? We already have seen the size of physical newspapers like the Hartford Courant shrink. News staffs are shrinking across the country and the quality of the news at many operations is in a decline. Large organizations like New Yorker and New York Times are bucking this trend. The non-profit CT Mirror is also doing good work. The Hartford Courant website is terrible but they put up some good blogs and many of their journalists are interesting to follow on twitter. As the news consuming demographic switches to digital first consumption the newspapers will have to move with them. If they move and they are able to show that they provide high quality product then they will get subscribers and be able to compete with the New York Times and other operations like it. Otherwise we will eventually lose them.