Libraries Threaten Paid Online News Archives

By: Steve Outing

Over the years in this column, I’ve periodically criticized newspapers for over-charging for articles pulled from their Web archives. Now emerging trends bolster the idea that archived articles should cost less — or even be offered free to the Web consumer, supported by targeted advertising or other means.

The instigator: public libraries, which increasingly are offering free access, from any home computer with Web access, to multi-publication database services for anyone with a library card.

If more people knew about libraries’ database offerings, there wouldn’t be much need or desire to use newspapers’ paid Web archives. (The majority of newspaper archives, especially in the U.S., charge per-article download fees in the $1 to $3 range.)

Tax dollars at work

Let’s start with my local library in Boulder, Colo. (a medium-sized city of under 100,000), as an example. With a Boulder library card, you can access eight premium databases at no charge. (Two others are restricted to usage from computer terminals located in a Boulder library facility.) Most notable among the home-access list is the Newsbank database, which allows you to search for articles from many dozens of regional U.S. newspapers (and a handful of international papers). On this free version of Newsbank, you can get articles from the nearby Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News.

The Boulder library’s Newsbank database even has a special search area for finding archived articles (anything older than seven days) from the local daily, the Boulder Daily Camera, at no charge, from your home computer. (Articles within the last week, of course, can be found on the Camera‘s Web site for free.)

In contrast, let’s take a look at and search for some archived articles. The Camera is part of the NewsLibrary publication database (NewsLibrary is owned by Newsbank), so you can search for old articles from the Camera and 41 other U.S. regional newspapers. Searching is free, but to read any single article costs $1.95.

Houston, we have a problem.

Now, why would any sane citizen of Boulder spend $1.95 for one archived article on when the same thing could be found — just as easily — via the Boulder Public Library’s Web site? Why would someone who needs to pull multiple articles from the newspaper database pay so much money when the alternative is free? Only because said citizen doesn’t yet know that there’s a free option.

Explains Gary Price, author, consultant, and library sciences expert, “What just about everyone has apparently not realized is that many public libraries offer free, full-text access to thousands of newspapers, magazines, etc. … What’s new is that they offer these services for free and without having to go to the library building. In many cases, people are paying for content (at newspaper sites) that they could already be getting for free. Heck, it’s their tax dollars paying for it.”

Price cites many other U.S. libraries with similarly rich, free-access (from home) databases.

* Pennsylvania library card holders can use the Power Library initiative to search for newspaper (and other) articles from home.

* The Los Angeles Public Library has a long list of premium databases available for free at-home use, including a Newsbank database of Los Angeles Times archived articles. (The price for searching on is $2.50 per article, or $4.95 for a day pass to the archive limited to four articles.)

* The Arlington County (Va.) library system’s accessible databases include ProQuest, which offers searches and downloads from hundreds of newspapers. (Archived articles on will cost you $2.95.)

As Price points out, I could be sitting in an Internet cafe in London, pull out my Boulder library card, and download free archived articles from the Boulder Daily Camera or any of hundreds of other publications. (It’s not really free, of course; my tax dollars pay for this functionality.)

Isn’t the Internet great?

Well, if you’re a newspaper publisher with a paid Web article archive, perhaps it doesn’t look so great right now. But what are you going to do about it? Pick a fight with your local library and demand that they not offer free archive access to your content or any other newspaper or magazine? The PR on that strategy is going to be nasty. Demand that the database companies (to which you sell your content and receive royalties) not distribute your data to local libraries? That strategy holds slightly less bad-PR risk, but it’s still shooting yourself in the foot, since you receive royalties whenever a local library patron accesses your archived articles via the library’s Web database access system.

Not that bad … yet

Actually, at least for now, the situation is far from dire. While libraries continue to add home-accessible premium databases for their constituencies, the majority of citizens don’t yet know that these free services exist. It’s a new phenomenon that you don’t need to go in to a library building to access the article databases.

Also, there are still many citizens (though a minority in most communities) who don’t even have library cards — which are necessary to access the free premium databases from home. The U.S. national average is 62% of any city’s adult residents will have library cards, according to a recent American Library Association study.

And, libraries are not known for their marketing abilities. Searcher magazine Editor Barbara Quint, who is considered a guru on online databases and library trends, offers an anecdote that will cheer publishers who still offer paid article archives:

A local librarian in an affluent American community recently negotiated a deal with a major news-article database to open up access to library-card-carrying computer users in their homes. She promoted it heavily (as much as a librarian with a limited budget could muster), even going so far as to hang a large banner on the library building trumpeting the new availability of the free (to the public) archive service. The results were disappointing, to say the least. Tracking showed that fewer than 50 people accessed the service from their home computers.

Given the marketing inexperience and lack of funding at public libraries, perhaps the public won’t find out what a good deal they offer. Perhaps the people in your city will continue to pay inflated per-article download fees at newspaper Web sites because they will forever remain clueless that they don’t have to pay.

You know, I don’t think that’s going to happen. In time people will figure this out, and paid Web newspaper archives are going to be in trouble — forced to convert to a free model in order to compete.

Why you shouldn’t fight this

As Quint and Price both point out, the key to all this is to get your content in front of the consumer’s face — it doesn’t matter where. In my Boulder example, the Web user who pays for archived articles at $1.95 a shot is obviously the preferred customer for the Daily Camera. But the smarter user who knows about the free at-home library option is not a complete loss to the newspaper. The Camera earns a royalty for each of those articles that a library patron downloads via the Web — just a smaller one. (It’s interesting to note here that both of those royalty checks to the Camera would come from Newsbank.)

Price cites the commonly known consumer behavior of “principle of least effort.” He means that if someone is already on a news site and happens to find a piece of information that’s important to him — even if there’s a price tag — he/she is more likely to pay the fee than to go off searching for a cheaper place to find the same thing. It’s this behavior that may make it possible to retain a paid-archive strategy in the face of free competition from public libraries offering at-home access to premium article databases. (Though frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it.)

Go free?

If you take the library “threat” seriously, perhaps the answer is offering free access to your news archives. (Or at the least, require user registration for access.) There are examples of free-access article archives among newspapers, such as the San Francisco Chronicle and St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, but they are the minority in the newspaper industry.

Ron Dupont, general manager of, says his archives generate “hundreds of thousands of page-views” per month, and for now, at least, he doesn’t think the likely modest income from charging an archive fee would make up for the ad income generated by those page-views. He’s also hesitant to anger users. Nevertheless, Dupont says he does expect that will start charging archive fees at some point in the future. (His cross-bay rival, The Tampa Tribune, does charge.)

One last thing to consider is just how much a newspaper can make from a paid-archives strategy. Most newspaper companies are hesitant to share archive revenue figures — but even among large papers, it’s very rare to go above $50,000 a year.

Given public libraries’ recent moves with at-home access to premium article databases, I seriously question the strategy of charging high fees for archived news articles. An already-shaky news industry model is having its foundations chipped away by librarians, of all people.

Readers on Knight Ridder, content publishing systems

My last column, Content Publishing Systems Squash News Design, generated quite a bit of comment:

You wrote (in a subhead), “Programmers 1, Designers 0,” and that the (Knight Ridder Real Cities) site’s look and feel appears that it was designed by programmers. It wasn’t. Programmers create the technology platform, not the look and feel of the sites nor who has control over what. Your article criticizes the Web publishing system (software platform) used to build the sites, but all the complaints you mention are related to site design and loss of control from groups of people. A Web publishing system adds features, gives flexibility over site design, and sets up workflows that give/restrict control to various teams.

In my opinion, relating the software to what it is used for is similar to saying the Apache Web server is bad because someone’s site looks bad.

Rajiv Pant (Betul)
Vice President — Engineering
Knight Ridder Digital

While I agree with the substance of your column that standardization can lead to less artful design, there are strengths to it as well. At smaller newspapers like ours, where we have not had the benefit of large amounts of capital to invest in online operations like larger newspapers, we made the decision early on to integrate. We don’t have a separate Web department in charge of news gathering. Our Webmaster does not post the news. It is all handled in the newsroom, where it should be, if you don’t have the resources to dedicate online-only reporters and staffers.

The advantage of standardization — which we have to some extent within Lee Enterprises — is that it has allowed us to come up with a fairly simple and easy way to allow our newsroom to post news without having to have great knowledge of coding and programming. This gives us the ability to react quickly, break news, and do some things that are outside the realm of general newspaper daily postings. It also allows us to bring in some vendor content that we wouldn’t be able to get on our own if our site were the square peg of the round holes.

Don’t get me wrong. I love great design, both for online sites and newspapers. But you can make the same argument that cutting newsprint in tough times hurts the ability of reporters to write longer stories. That’s the reality of working in this business. And while Web standardization has its shortcomings, it also has its advantages when combined with the right strategy.

Chris Hardie
Local News Editor/Online Content Editor
La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune

Because we felt that no automated system truly allowed for the kind of flexibility we needed to show on our front page, we (at CBS Marketwatch) set out to build our own content management system that allowed us to start with essentially a clear front page every day. We also built a traditional news desk and have, dare I say it, humans, who design and update our front page around the clock … from our offices in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo, and London. At any time of the day one or more editors has control over our front page and can move things around in a big way. During the heart of the business day we have as many as four or five people working on layout and presentation of news on that front page, dealing with many moving targets. We believe this flexibility to exercise our editorial intelligence with respect to placement and prominence of stories has been the cornerstone of our success in building a large and loyal audience against what were once much bigger competitors. Oh, we also believe we have the very best financial journalists doing those jobs, which is clearly the other part of our success.

Larry Kramer
Chairman and CEO

I read your May 8 “Stop the Presses” with interest, because a day afterward (but before I had read it) I had posted a similar critique of (Knight Ridder’s) redesigned Web sites on my Weblog. I have to say, though, that you come down a little too hard on content management systems. The problem isn’t with the system. It’s with the management who decree that everyone shall use it, and with the designers who designed the system to have no adaptability for local conditions. The new Real Cities design is horribly inflexible. There appears to be no leeway to adapt it to fit local conditions.

Content management systems are wonderful; they take away the drudge work from publishing. Stupid management decisions, on the other hand, are not wonderful. Knight Ridder’s move to a mandated design that was clearly created with no input from the local papers is more an example of the latter than the former.

You kind of touch on that at the end, but the overall impression your article leaves is that it’s the system that’s causing the problem. It’s not. It’s a design process that doesn’t take into account the needs of users and the most basic precepts of the newspaper business. As I said on my site, I don’t go to the newsstand to buy “A Gannett Paper” when I need news; I go to buy the Asbury Park Press (Neptune, N.J.). I’m not interested in Real Cities; I’ve got real cities right here, and I’d like to read about them. Knight Ridder forgot that. Imagine if they did that with their local papers, driving out local news for a bland uniformity. Hell, even though Gannett has McPaper, they still publish local papers, too.

Anyway, I did really enjoy the column. Aside from the emphasis on the technology, which isn’t the problem, I think you’re right on target.

Ralph Brandi

I totally disagree. In fact, the Knight Ridder sites are beautifully designed. The concept was just poorly thought out. There’s no reason why the (San Jose Mercury News) can’t have a home page in the Real Cities design. They just apparently decided against that. The funny thing is that (Time Inc.’s original) Pathfinder actually had it right but it’s taken a few years for everyone to recognize that. Designers have been hobbling the efficient delivery of content now for several years. And we have been left with poorly archived, impossible to search, inconsistently designed, unable to syndicate content. All because egomaniacal designers want pixel level control of every single page. I say good riddance. Finally I can go to most news-y sites and find what I’m looking for, not be barraged with design, search, read, etc. The Weblog phenomenon makes this even clearer. There are plenty of ways to plug-in “designed” sections in even the most rigid content management system. But please, please let the content step forth.

Patrick Breitenbach

I’ll confirm that I’m a reader-casualty of the new “design” (if you could call it that) imposed by Knight Ridder on its member newspapers’ Web sites.

I used to read The Miami Herald online everyday for the crime news. Miami has crime — really weird and interesting crime — like no other city. And the Herald, to its credit, has great crime reporting.

However, I stopped reading the Herald‘s crime stories online upon realizing that the site was reprinting fewer stories from the daily paper and few, if any, crime stories. Now I rarely, if ever, visit the site.

I wish Knight Ridder would understand what it destroyed when it imposed its uniform Web site look on its member papers. I’m beginning to think that whoever’s in charge doesn’t actually read the content on the sites.

Name withheld upon request

I really enjoyed your “Content Publishing Systems Squash News Design,” a great read, probably because many of the points rang true for our change to a unified (content management system). It is such a complex task with so many stakeholders that there are bound to be unhappy people, but I think that many of the “unhappy” people could be happier if more time was put into the requirements, design, and implementation. “The system was implemented in only five weeks in January and February” is not unusual; the bigger problem is how much time did they put into the requirements and design stage? There are parallels between the creation of software — i.e., we have X time to get it done. As that deadline looms things are paired down to “essential” versus new stage 2 enhancements, and all it’s about in the end is getting the system in place and adding the mag wheels and pin stripe and patches after launch. We see this kind of thing happening with the launch of browsers, operating systems, word processing applications, and (content management systems)! I looked at the “Tribune Interactive Implements State-of-the-Art Online Publishing Platform” article on Sun, and the interesting part was “Tribune Interactive began implementation in December 2000, at By Nov. 13 of this year (2001) …” Nearly a year’s implementation. … Good software design, I guess.

Newspapers just throw more people/programmers at a software change in their systems, getting to the end with brute force. It’s their core business; they can’t afford to fail. Newspaper Web systems on the other hand don’t have the money to employ the extra people, so they make do, breaking the system down into manageable pieces.

Name withheld upon request

Other recent columns

Content Publishing Systems Squash News Design, Wednesday, May 8
Have u 4gotten IM?, Wednesday, April 24
News Sites Repeat Mistakes Of the Past, Wednesday, April 10
USC J-School To Teach Convergence To All, Wednesday, March 27
Interactive News Is Newspaper-Wide Effort In Spokane, Wednesday, March 13
News Sites Need To Get Flash-y, Wednesday, Feb. 27
Previous columns

Get Stop The Presses! by e-mail

If you would like to get e-mail delivery of the Stop The Presses! column, there are two options:

1) Text e-mail. I send out a text e-mail message containing abrief description of the current column, along with a URL link to the actual column on the E&P Web site. To receive these regular reminders, signup here.

2) HTML e-mail. If you prefer to receive the entire column, you can have it delivered to you as an HTML e-mail message whenever a new column is published. Sign up here.

Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the online news media business, please send me a note.

Follow by Email
Visit Us

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *