Struggling print papers consider charging on Web

Complex Linotype machine was a staple at newspapers from the 1880s to the 1970s.
Photo: Copyright © 2003–2010 Norman Walsh and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Printed newspapers are under increasing pressure to begin charging for content. In some cases, the decision is made shortly before executives of a printed newspaper move it completely to Web publishing.

This is one of the hot topics in the journalism world today as existing newspapers seek to regain the monopoly position they held before the Internet arrived. Consumers could be faced with subscription fees upwards of $100 a year.

The newspaper monopoly was a de facto one rather than legislative. The equipment necessary to put ink on newsprint was costly, and the company owning the expensive presses was not likely to be challenged by startup enterprises. In the United States these monopolies were geographical.

Through the early 1960s smaller U.S. newspapers maintained their own print shop. Often the company also did general printing for the community. The operation and maintenance of a Linotype machine was even a course at university journalism programs. Each weekly or small daily newspaper would have one or more Linotype machines to cast lines of lead type. And there would be a flatbed or small cylinder press to produce the newspaper.

The first change in the 1960s was the use of centralized printing. That came with offset composition because it was easier to carry a stack of pages to a bigger printing location than to truck hundreds of pounds of steel frames full of lead type. The initial offset composer was a special typewriter that could make lines of type with equal left and right margins, the result of the process known as justification.

A few years later Compugraphic Corp. revolutionized the industry with an optical system connected to a keyboard that produced columns of type on photosensitive paper. When developed, the columns could be trimmed and placed on paper layout forms with wax.

The centralized printing concept put new life into local journalism. The editors could spend more time taking photographs, doing interviews and writing news stories than doing mechanical overhauls of Linotype machines. Local journalism flourished, and rural towns that had an eight-page letterpress newspaper suddenly started seeing mostly tabloid-sized modern newspapers written locally but printed miles away.

As the suburbs grew in the 1960s little towns suddenly became cities with their own local newspaper. Cities like Chicago quickly were ringed by small daily newspapers catering to the needs of the local community. There also was the economic advantage of printing the legal advertising for the municipality.

Other firms challenged Compugraphic and used the new computer technology to make typesetting even easier and quicker. Some newspapers began using Commodore 64 computers to set type and save news stories and ad text to floppy disk. By the mid-1980s Macintosh had captured the newspaper world due to its graphic capabilities and the QuarkXpress software allowed editors to create electronic versions of newspages the same way they had done with knife and wax.

Employment and the cost of producing a newspaper plummeted. Laser technology allowed a desktop printer to produce a full-size newspaper page. Publishers raked in the money, and some large newspapers were showing a 20 percent net profit. Local competition developed in the form of shoppers and alternative newspapers because the price of admission was lower.

Some new arrivals adopted a free newspaper strategy in which advertisers paid the entire cost. This was a popular and successful model at ski resorts and other tourist destinations where printing and distribution costs were moderate.

At the same time newspaper chains went public and got an infusion of money from Wall Street that they used to purchase locally owned newspapers and printing businesses. The local daily was not local any more. It was owned by some faraway corporation and produced by cheap labor, thanks to some distant journalism school.

With distant ownership, local managers were under pressure to raise rates, reduce staff and find other ways to increase the bottom line. One company that owned local newspapers all over the United States had this management rule:

A third of the income is for production and other costs. A third of the income is for salaries. A third of the gross income is to be shipped off to the corporate headquarters. For smaller communities this meant that a third of the income for the paper was being sucked out of the local economy.

The final product began to reflect the ravages of corporate ownership.

About 2000 Internet penetration and browser software created the opportunity to publish directly to the Web, but printed newspapers were slow to see the future. Many sought to protect their printed product by producing a token Web report.

Some 10 years later newspapers are wrestling with the same problem: How to protect the profitable printed product from those interlopers on the Web. Competition has grown. Not only are some local newspapers Web-only, but Craigslist and other online advertising and shopping sites are eating into traditional newspaper income. Google and other online advertising programs give a boost to technologically savvy startups and provide a non-newspaper advertising option.

Some newspapers are experimenting with charging for content on the Web. Some major newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, now have a paid site where readers get headlines and a summary but must be subscribers to read more. Other major newspapers are considering the same policy.

Even a 26,000 circulation newspaper, The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, Colorado, said last week it would begin charging for content.

One weekly, the Guadalupe County Communicator in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, abandoned a Web version all together and promised to produce a quality printed newspaper that community residents would read and pay for.

The paid approach online seems to be a hard sell for general news publications. So much news is available for free on the Web and on television. Headlines and short summaries are not copyright protected, which is why online sites, including A.M. Costa Rica, can run legally news feeds gathered from all over.

Advertisers, too, are not likely to appreciate paid sites where the readership drops precipitously. Advertisers, unless they are targeting a specific, easily identifiable market, generally prefer that more rather than fewer individuals view their ads.

But the alternative for many printed publications is not attractive either. Circulation is dropping as whole generations prefer other forms of communication to newspapers. Printing costs are increasing. The waste and petroleum-based inks require special disposal.

Paper mills are closing, and the price of newsprint is sure to rise. Printed publications fear that advertisers will no longer support the expensive ink-on-paper technology, particularly since Web advertising is so inexpensive and perhaps more effective because of embedded links. Web advertising can be tracked more closely than the circulation of printed papers where the best figures that are available are press run totals from the printer and mumbo jumbo about how each newspaper is read by 4.5 persons.

The management of A.M. Costa Rica chose from the start in 2001 a business model that mimics the free newspapers of Colorado’s ski resorts. The choice proved to be profitable and a boon to advertisers who have their message transmitted to at least 90 countries instantly every morning.

The management also recognizes that Costa Rica and the target market of those interested in Costa Rica represent a special case. The model may not be suitable for general circulation dailies in the United States or elsewhere. But this newspaper is not going to change, editors say.

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