SJ Mercury News to charge for web content

May 13, 2009 6:54:31 PM PDT
The free ride soon will be over for people who want to read several Bay Area newspapers online. But some in the industry question whether charging for content is a smart strategy.

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Newspaper websites have been struggling to find a strategy that works.

Why place a classified ad on mercurynews.com when it's free on Craigslist? Why buy a paper when its content is free online?

The owner of the Mercury News says the answer is to end the free ride online. It is a decision labeled risky by former Mercury News online editor Michael Bazeley.

"There's an expectation, particularly among the younger generation, that when you go online, most of the information you're going to get is going to be free with few exceptions, and this idea of re-training people to think now they have to pay for this content, I think, is a risky proposition," said Bazeley.

The decision is expected to impact dozens of news sites owned by Media News, which also owns the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, and Marin Independent Journal in the Bay Area.

The editor of the Mercury News turned down a request for an interview.

"You're going to essentially open up the market for other people who want to come into the market and offer content for free, and there will always be people. There will always be competitors who see an opportunity," said Bazeley.

That could give a boost to free news sites, such as the Chronicle's sfgate.com.

It remains free, even though the newspaper has had major layoffs as a result of falling circulation and ad sales.

The Wall Street Journal charges $103 a year for its full-text content and the New York Times has been looking into charging.

San Jose State journalism professor Richard Craig and others argue that unique content on paid sites could make the difference.

"I'd like to think that if you have faith in your news organization and its ability to produce content that you can't get anywhere else, that there is a belief that this has value to people and that if you keep the prices relatively low and if you deliver quality content, you will build up a loyal following," said Craig, Ph.D.

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