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Originally published March 24, 2013 at 4:08 PM | Page modified March 26, 2013 at 10:52 AM

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Op-ed: There’s no such thing as free content

News organizations need another return on investment to remain viable, writes guest columnist Candace Heckman Barron.

Special to The Times

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FOUR years ago this month, a handful of colleagues and I went to the roof of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer building, and climbed inside the neon-lit globe for a final farewell. We had just sent the last P-I to the press.

My colleagues and I were distraught, filled with sadness, anger and whiskey. We lamented not just the loss of our own employment or the demise of a venerable, 146-year-old public institution, but that our community — Seattle, Washington, the Pacific Northwest — would have one less torch in the darkness.

That was a particularly dark period for American journalism. The angel of death hovered over both the P-I and our fierce rival, The Seattle Times, for years.

And it continues. Last year, newsrooms fell below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978, down 30 percent since a peak in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2013 report released last week.

So, when I first learned about The Times’ plan to charge readers for online access, I shook my head, exasperated: “What took you so long?”

Notwithstanding the logistical costs of printing and delivering an actual newspaper, there’s no such thing as free content. Professional news organizations pay a lot to gather, analyze and produce quality reports.

With advertising no longer subsidizing these costs (down 60 percent over the past 10 years), the newspaper needs another return on investment to remain viable and continue its mission.

That’s where readers will come in — if it’s not too late.

The 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News preceded the P-I in death by a few weeks. The Tucson Citizen later fell at age 138. Then, The Honolulu Advertiser, 153.

If papers aren’t dying, they have been thinning by laying off journalists or reducing print runs. Often both. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans is printing a paper only three days a week now.

Readers, especially younger ones, have been abandoning print for digital versions they could get for free and with greater convenience.

But Pew conducted an opinion survey earlier this year that found that nearly a third of U.S. adults have quit a news outlet altogether because it no longer provided them with the quality they expected. Of those, more than 60 percent complained that stories were less complete, compared with 24 percent who said they noticed fewer stories.

The editors of The Seattle Times say that requiring readers to pay for more than the occasional view would allow them to maintain, hopefully boost, quality in their journalism.

The New York Times, which two years ago instituted an online subscription program similar to Seattle’s plans, reported that its circulation revenue now exceeds its advertising revenue. According to Pew’s research, 450 of 1,380 daily American papers have started or announced some kind of paid content subscription for online readers.

There will be vocal dissenters. But there are also others, like me, willing to pay for quality information to enrich their daily lives. Fortunately, the same readers willing to pay for value are the ones advertisers ultimately want to reach, as well.

Even Warren Buffett, whose investment firm has recently purchased more than two dozen local newspapers, reiterated in his letter to shareholders earlier this month that the value of local journalism and newspapers in particular “continue to reign supreme.”

“News, to put it simply, is what people don’t know that they want to know,” Buffett wrote. He praised the paid-subscription model, stating his goal of keeping papers loaded with content, “to be paid appropriately by those who find us useful, whether the product they view is in their hands or on the Internet.”

The intrinsic value of Sunday coupons aside, I consume most of The Seattle Times’ content online. Sure, I can get a lot of free coverage from television and neighborhood blogs, but none of that has ever been as reliable as a professional newspaper report prepared by experienced journalists.

In 2009, when I climbed inside the rickety inner sphere of the P-I globe, I saw up close how the business decisions and indecisions of my former employer let this landmark beacon fall into disrepair. It made me worry what Seattle would be like with no newspaper at all.

Candace Heckman Barron is the former breaking news editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She now works in corporate communications.

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