No such thing as a free lunch (2)
Archived Articles 03 Jul 2009  EWR
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It took time, perhaps helped by the present financial crisis combined with the dwindling ability to focus at length, but Estonia’s leading newspapers decided this week to limit the amount of material that they provide free of charge to their internet audience. Citing falling circulation numbers and plummeting advertising revenues, Postimees ceased full internet publication of its written for print articles on June 29th. Eesti Päevaleht, the other main serious competitor in the Estonian daily newspaper market followed suit, announcing a day later that come the fall their publication is also planning to limit the material available gratis on their website.

As reported in The Baltic Course, Merit Kopli, the editor-in-chief of Postimees did not outline an action plan, but indicated that the paper is considering implementing a pay-for-read fee in order to access the print version’s articles online. The same will apply for accessing the paper’s online archives. Kopli suggested that this might take place by the end of the calendar year.

Postimees is only following the lead of publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch. The Guardian reported on May 7th that the media mogul looked at the booming subscription revenue increases for the Wall Street Journal Online and has decided to phase in charging for access to his News Corporation’s newspaper websites within a year’s time. Murdoch went as far as calling free newspaper websites a “flawed” business model.

Andrew Clark of The Guardian noted in his coverage of Murdoch’s May statement that the News Corporation’s TV and print advertising revenues were down in the first quarter of this year, resulting in Murdoch cutting over 3,000 jobs. Tellingly, none of them were what Murdoch called “creative” positions.

Then again, let us not forget that Murdoch made his billions by publishing tabloids. Not to mention his ownership of television's Fox news, certainly not the most balanced or reasoned network around. That last – being reasoned and balanced, allowing readers and viewers to make educated opinions is sorely lacking in many media. Indeed, that is what makes the difference in the quality – not the parrots and shills focusing on special interests or over-hyping events such as the passing of entertainment figures, but those journalists with the ability to analyze, provide opinion, and convey in a creative manner something different about what most people have already heard about.

Which is why, without belabouring the obvious, publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the Economist or The Globe and Mail provide the most satisfying reading material regardless of agreement: the quality of the writing.

A significant advantage of newsprint over the instant medium of the internet is that old-time professionals rarely allow anything into print that has not been fact-and-spell checked, proofread and confirmed by an editor as being timely and of interest to the subscriber. Not so with the internet. That is easily confirmed by simply going online.

Postimees and Eesti Päevaleht have the advantage of name recognition to draw readers to their website. Combined with the commenting phenomenon that allows people to vent anonymously this has allowed for free - dare I say cheap? - thrills without providing any additional revenue for the publishers. Internet advertising is no guarantee or an easily gained source of income. Mere hits on a site do not ensure a target audience. To date then, Estonian newspapers online have apparently subsidized their websites with their print subscription revenues.

Eesti Elu/Estonian Life cannot be compared in the same breath. As a niche ethnic newspaper published abroad it relies on subscriptions for the bulk of operating revenues. As we know, the main advertising is in the form of obituaries. The core subscriber is one more at home with a newspaper than a computer. Still, EE has been offering a free internet edition since its launch with just about every article of length and significance posted online after the paper has hit the streets. Hence, the younger generation has no incentive to pay for their father’s Oldsmobile – it’s even gassed up, insured and, hey, no need to ask for the keys!

Will this free lunch continue? Are there readers willing to pay for access to EE Online? Should EE Online channel more energy into their online edition without a revenue stream? Views and opinions welcomed!

Time will tell if the decision by Estonia’s two leading dailies will have an impact on their internet readership. On this side of the ocean the determination to keep providing something for nothing will not have an effect on the younger readers. Their wallets do not have to be opened, after all. Yet...

The older ones, the ones who first turn to the obits, the scan the pictures, before sampling the headlines and deciding what to read, whilst delaying the gratitude gained by completing the crossword, can rest assured. Their annual subscription will keep their balanced meal on the table for at least a few more years. In these times of economic uncertainty that is perhaps all that a paid up subscriber can ask for.
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