Editorial: Free Press Doesn?t Mean Free Content

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By: Jeff Fleming

For a whopping $2.99, I downloaded an iPad app that gave me instant access to 4,016 worldwide newspapers. Not a shabby investment, considering I saved approximately $3,009 per day, not subscribing to these papers’ print editions. Today, newspapers exist in a bizarre economic labyrinth leading down many paths but one: profit. Newspaper publishers pay their employees to create a product that is given away for free online, then some entrepreneurial geek comes along and cashes in on the valuable content publishers freely donate. The geek then shares his profits with Apple, writes a check for his college tuition, and settles comfortably into an umpteenth round of Killzone 3. If I were a newspaper, I’d be muckraking mad.

To add the frothing on the cake, here is a line from the app’s promo copy: “The most comprehensive and easy to use directory of thousands of local newspapers with free online content from around the world.” (Emphasis is my own.)

Others who have downloaded this app are delighted with its efficiency. Here are some user reviews:
• “Really enjoy one-stop shopping for a LOT of newspapers around the world! Excellent selections!”
• “As a multiple state and international news hound, I love this app! Good coverage but could use even more of smaller papers from states and countries.”
• “I love this app. I use it every day to read our local news.”
• “Love being able to read newspapers from anywhere in the world.
I love being able to read newspapers from my wife’s country and the newspapers from my parents homeland.”

If newspapers would listen to their elders, they might not be in this predicament. Take Bourbon County Citizen publisher Genevieve Brannon, a feisty 84-year-old at the helm of a weekly that has been publishing since 1807. According to Citizen employee Rebecca Lawyer, “Brannon refuses to have a website, which she believes has been responsible for the downfall of many newspapers. She doesn’t accept credit cards (to the disagreement of family and staff) and she hangs on the ‘rope’ of the basics and traditional operation before jumping into the unknown swimming pool of new journalism technology.”

With the digital market growing and the knowledge that Apple (or Google) will be sucking 30 percent from newspaper app subscriptions (if an amicable agreement is reached with subscriber data), it may be a good time to shut the back door access to free content (and lock it), and open the front door, welcoming new subscribers and charging them for valuable, quality content.

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