The grim financial situation facing many newspapers, particularly those in large media markets, has rekindled the debate about whether media companies should charge users for online content. If you're like most Americans, your gut reaction probably goes something like this:
"Why would I pay for something I already get for free?"
And why should you? During the past decade, the Web has become the dumping ground for information of all types. With few exceptions, that information is given away for free - provided you pay your bill to Comcast, Qwest and other Internet service providers for the ability to access the vast warehouse of information, useful and not, that we call the Web.
One of the results is that generations of Americans are being brought up in a culture that, while placing significant importance on information and knowledge, doesn't understand or consider the cost and resources devoted to producing that information. Even the most straightforward news article takes time and effort from a professional journalist.
Take, for example, our reporting of Tuesday's Hayden town vote on the formation of a home-rule charter commission. Pilot & Today reporter Blythe Terrell drove - in a snowstorm - the 25 miles west on U.S. Highway 40 to Hayden Town Hall, where she met with town officials, election judges and residents who took the time to cast a ballot. She captured a couple of images with one of our newsroom cameras, and she eventually made the return trip to our office, where she wrote the story and uploaded the photos. She didn't finish her work until after getting a phone call with the final vote tally later Tuesday evening. The story and photos then had to be uploaded to Steamboatpilot.com.
This is, of course, just one small example of the time and effort that goes into reporting local news stories. Neither Terrell nor I would hold up the Hayden story as an exemplary piece of in-depth journalism, but it was, nonetheless, an important story to share with our readers. And it was just one of many such stories we produce on a daily basis.
Now, consider all the various Web sites you visit on a daily basis, looking for news and information that you attach value to simply by seeking it out. Of course, that value is something other than monetary - intellectual, perhaps? Would you ever attach a monetary value to that news and information? What if you were forced to? Would you pay 10 cents for a news article if you knew that was the only way to get the information you seek?
Some say the answer lies in micropayments similar to the 99 cents iTunes charges us for songs from our favorite artists. They say that if newspapers made it easy for readers to pay 20 cents for that day's online edition, they'd happily do so with the click of a button.
I'm not sure that's the answer, but I'm pleased the newspaper industry is looking for innovative solutions. I think journalism is too important to go away and that newspapers must continue to remind their readers that they provide a service others can't, don't and won't.
The Pilot & Today has no immediate plans to begin charging for content. But I hope the next time you browse your favorite news and information Web sites, you'll take a moment to consider the resources that went into providing each of those stories, photos and videos.
Brent Boyer can be reached at 970-871-4221 or firstname.lastname@example.org