My former employer, the Pocono Record, just went to a pay wall for online content. Lots of folks are upset, especially since the weekly charge for just online ($4.52) is higher than the weekly charge for print and online ($4.13). Cheapest rate of all is for the old-fashioned print newspaper ($3.75), so it's no mystery this pricing arrangement is aimed at driving up print sales. (That's where most of the advertising revenue comes from, print, in case you're trying to imagine conditions in which all this makes any sense.)
Resentment is running high and I'm hearing from people who say "Well, haven't you been sorta-retired long enough? Don't you want to start up a free community newspaper? Now's the time."
Sorry, but I'm not interested.
That's not because I think it's a bad thing. It's just I don't want anything more to do with what goes into making a successful online operation for news. And I don't want to have to spend my life explaining to people who want such a site that, yes, really, it is the bad news that sells, you need to report on crimes, accidents, fires, sickness, death, people hurting each other, people cheating each other, mean-spiritedness, scandal and tragedy in general. That, plus some trivialities and at least one heartbreaking broken animal story a week, is the heartbeat of online news.
For every 500 people who will read a story about a high school student volunteering to work with the terminally ill, you will get about 2,000 people reading about a two-bit burglary.
Newspaper people sensed this for decades, but the online age gave us proof positive. The feedbacks for online are such that you can monitor stories all day and see which ones are being read. It bears out the bad-news-sells-newspapers paradigm. (Which is really a statement about humanity, not newspapers, if you think about it.)
Really, the only reason news media include "good news" stories is to try to strike an arbitrary balance between good and bad in their product. And to defend themselves against the reality-deniers who think people read good news stories. You can't argue the point with them. It's easier to just do some features about normal people doing normal things, which is what most people do most of the time, which is exactly why it isn't news. News that attracts is about deviations from the norm.
Finally, if it's a free newspaper, it would be a volunteer effort, with free labor. There's not enough local online advertising out there to make it possible to pay anyone a salary. I thought I was underpaid for 38 years; if I go to work for nothing, I know I'll be underpaid, and also sitting pretty for a libel suit the first time one of the free volunteers decides it's a good day to get even with his neighbor with the barking dog.
So I think I'll pass.
The question for everyone, really, is whether $4.52 is a fair price to pay to have a newsroom constantly reporting on breaking news, with real-time reports as things happen and anything else you want when you want it. That's a consumer decision. I'm as curious as anyone to see how it plays out.