Our friends at the Banner-Herald are finally taking the long-anticipated step of imposing a charge on readers who look at it online. Those who pay for a subscription to the Banner-Herald paper will still get online access without additional payment. This is business as usual for many daily papers across the country, since it doesn’t make sense for them to charge readers who read the paper while allowing free access to the same material for those who read it online.
That’s the crux of the impact the web has had on newspapers, a devastating change in a business model that had proven so profitable that most daily papers were bought up into huge chains owned by distant media conglomerates. Now, they’re all struggling to find ways to keep the web from putting them out of business.
Locally, this brings up the question, can Flagpole continue to be free online?
The answer is, “Of course.”
Flagpole has always been free. Our business model, shared with the 117 member papers of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, has always foregone the newsstand price in favor of the greater readership that comes with free circulation. Our readers pick up our papers at over 300 locations in and around Athens; they read our stories, and they read our ads. Free access puts our readers in touch with the community and our advertisers in touch with our readers. It’s a formula that works well for the AAN papers across the country, and it means that we don’t have to make the agonizing decision about whether to start charging our online readers for the same material they can pick up for free at Hendershot’s. Now, our free circulation online as well as in the paper is just another way that we are an alternative to the Banner-Herald.
In truth, the web has leveled the playing field in journalism, so that Flagpole has the same online presence as the Banner-Herald. Competing with the paper on a daily basis was impossible when print was all we had. The awesome costs of maintaining a printing press, staffing it, running it every day and delivering its “product” was prohibitive to us. Now, Flagpole has the same daily (hourly) presence on the web as the Banner-Herald, and readers have the same access to both papers, except that Flagpole will still be free. To tell you the truth, the Banner-Herald’s new “paywall” between its online stories and its readers is just about the same as its old paywall between the paper and its readers. In order for the new paywall to work, the Banner-Herald has got to attract a lot of paying customers online while not losing very many who now subscribe to the paper or pay for it by the issue. The paper’s paid-circulation numbers have been dropping for a long time. Forcing readers to choose between paying online or paying for the paper may not have a beneficial effect on print circulation.
Here’s wishing good luck to our daily colleagues in the ongoing struggle to adapt journalism to changing times and technology. We’ve got our own job cut out for us as we increase our online presence while continuing to put out a weekly paper that people still like to hold in their hands, even though they’re also consulting it online. Fortunately for us and for our readers, both versions of Flagpole are still free and are still available all over town.