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Facebook comment prompts interesting exchange

A few days back, a Facebook friend posted a status update that caught my eye and prompted me to post a response.

I could identify this person, I suppose, because the discussion was visible to our many friends and was already semi-public. However, he wasn’t commenting with that in mind and the ensuing discussion changed his original position to the point that he subsequently deleted the thread altogether.

So what I will do is paraphrase his comments by changing the wording and post them without attribution, because I think he was articulating how some people feel about The Telegram’s recent move to a metering system, in which readers pay a $9 monthly fee to read seven or more articles. Here is the comment:

“The Telegram should know that charging people to read articles online is a quick way to lose 90 percent of your readership and advertisers.”

There was a healthy debate underway when I joined the fray and someone had already asked why we assume that everything on the Internet has to be free. Again, here is my friend’s paraphrased response:

“I think it’s incorrect to view an online newspaper as a single thing – it’s really a collection of links that are found, read and shared at random, wouldn’t you say? … I wouldn’t pay to read one link. Instead, I would go to CBC or VOCM for the same story. The idea that the Internet is free and about the sharing of information applies to most of my generation… For example, if I shared a link about an interesting Telegram story on Facebook, someone in Alberta or New York would have to pay to read it. I think that runs against the purpose of the Internet.”

I posted a quick 144-word reply from my smartphone and, now that I’m back at my desktop, can elaborate on those points in a little more detail. I knew that a lot of people were nodding in agreement while reading my friend’s comments and felt compelled to present the alternative view.

Off the top, I noted that The Telegram has a full newsroom of reporters, as well as production, admin and sales staff. As hard copy newspaper sales continue their slow, inevitable decline, they need to look to the web site to increase revenue. However, advertising revenue from a newspaper’s web site will never replace the revenue that is generated by the print edition.

Rather than suffer the death of a thousand cuts, daily newspapers – The Telegram included – may as well charge for online content and at least go down fighting.

I’m not suggesting that the outcome will be bad for The Telegram. To the contrary, I think they have a good chance of making this work because $9 per month for full access is a good buy, at about half the cost of the print edition.

As for alternatives to The Telegram, well, that’s not so easy.

The Telegram is not unique in providing comprehensive local news coverage and in-depth features. However, their greatest strength – what keeps drawing me back to their site – are the editorials and columnists. The commentary is always interesting, provocative and well-written. Where else will you find it?

The VOCM site offers great spot news coverage but no commentary, editorials or long-form journalism. The site is great for a quick news fix but is a different kind of animal and can’t replace what’s on offer at The Telegram.

The CBC NL site has in-depth reporting but precious little commentary and no editorials. The site is publicly funded and isn’t facing quite the same revenue challenges as The Telegram, though they are suffering an endless onslaught of cuts – as we saw on Thursday. The only thing stopping the Harper Conservatives from privatizing or shutting down CBC altogether is the public support the network enjoys from a majority of Canadians. However, if the Conservatives win another majority I fear that the CBC will be gone by 2019. In the interim, their business model will need to change and adapt to continuing financial pressure and we can’t take it for granted that access to cbc.ca will remain “free” forever.

It was another commenter who made the most succinct point. The friend who started the thread is also a writer, so someone said this:

“This means you’ll be releasing your next book on the Internet for free, right?”

To his credit, my friend graciously said that maybe he had commented in haste and hadn’t thought things through completely, adding that he would soon delete the thread. It has since been removed.

However, there are still people out there who refuse to pay for anything on the Internet. Some are more interested in finding ways to cheat the system, by downloading illegal songs and movies or even finding ways to bypass a site’s log-in system. These people will never be persuaded to pay for content online.

Others genuinely believe that you can find strong local journalism online without having to pay for it. That’s true to a point – there are other journalism sites and there are some interesting, challenging bloggers out there – but you will not find for free anything that matches The Telegram’s blend of news and editorial commentary.

And I’d better get this out of the way now: some people will accuse me of supporting The Telegram because I’m “in their camp” or “on their team.” This is incorrect. I am not influenced so easily as that and have always believed in paying for quality content, especially as it relates to journalism. I was an early adopter of the iPod and never, ever downloaded an illegal song (or movie, for that matter). I have pondered in previous blogs the question of how newspapers adapt to survive in an online world and have always been consistent in my position. When sharing and using photos I always ask for permission first and, if it’s pointed out that I didn’t have that permission (which has happened, though rarely) I am quick to remedy the situation.

I don’t believe in stealing other people’s work and I strongly believe that you get what you pay for.

That said, I think The Telegram has to address some problems on its web site if it wants to increase paid readership. There are things I like and details I’d change, and this could make a separate blog entry in the near future. More than anything, they need to build on their strengths by putting their people – especially their columnists – to the front. In my view, there should be a column towards the right side of the home page (where “Most Popular” appears now) that highlights the column of the day. Include a picture of the columnist, along with a zinger of a headline. Stack the columns in chronological order, with the newest at the top. It is this commentary that distinguishes the paper and I think they need to sell it more aggressively.

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