A couple years ago, the numbers were all trending in a good direction at the Crookston Daily Times’ website, crookstontimes.com. Without going into needless detail, pretty much every important category that you want to see lines moving upward – like the number of site visitors a day, the number of pages they visited on the site on average, and how much time they spent on the site – was on a positive incline.
But, in the realm of all good things having to come to an end, the Times’ owner, GateHouse Media, decided to implement a pay wall, or a pay meter…whatever you want to call it. It was an understandable move, one could argue. After all, anyone in the newspaper business will tell you today that the first newspaper that put content online for free made probably the biggest mistake in the history of journalism. Once all that content was out there for free, it makes it that much tougher, years later, to present your readers with the news that they’re going to have to start paying.
But that’s what, inevitably, had been happening in recent years; newspapers were starting to charge their readers a fee to access their online stories, photos and videos.
It was a genuine momentous development at the Times, we thought. GateHouse sent out a massive announcement that we were supposed to localize and publish so our readers knew every single nuance of the meter plan and every single possible reason why it was being put in place. The company sent out a giant list of “frequently asked questions,” commonly known as FAQs, in the hope of addressing every possible question, concern or complaint that crookstontimes.com visitors could muster up. We published it all, the long announcement and no less lengthy FAQ list, in print and online.
But I only absorbed two aspects of it all. First, it was expensive, around $10.99 a month. Second, it was confusing, in that some of the content readers would still be able to access for free online, while some mouse clicks and page views would count toward their allotment of free content each month.
Many readers were irked, including my parents, who are print subscribers, too (Thanks, mom and dad!), but get their print edition a day late because they don’t live in Crookston. I tried explaining to them what was free and what wasn’t, but all I did was puzzle them, and myself, possibly.
Why couldn’t the Times’ website and pay system be like the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s, I wondered to anyone who would lend me an ear. I’d been reading the Strib’s website since the dial-up Internet days, since my wife and I bought our first big Dell desktop computer in the 1990s. I had an account with a username, etc., but for years it was all free. Then, one day, I clicked on another story on the Strib site and I was notified that I had five free stories left that month. I was asked if I’d like to set up a account and “subscribe” to the online content, or simply have 20 free page views per month.
Page 2 of 2 - I clicked my mouse a couple times, learned that it would cost around $7 a month to read anything I wanted, and entered a bank account number so the fee would be automatically deducted every month. It was clean and simple. I either paid and got everything I wanted, or didn’t pay and got to read 20 stories a month; no matter which stories they were, they would all count on my meter.
It seemed inconceivable to me that it would cost around $4 more a month to read crookstontimes.com content versus Star Tribune content. I wasn’t alone, apparently. Since those days, GateHouse has reduced on more than one occasion its online user fees, but I couldn’t even tell you what it costs today. I can’t tell you today what’s free on our site and what isn’t, either.
But we bottomed out, and our numbers have started to recover, so that’s worth a mini-celebration. But all the while, I’ve envied the clear-cut, simple fee system in place on the Strib website, and when I see that $7 or so deduction every month from our checking account, I can’t help but think I’m getting a great deal.
But another good thing is coming to an end. The Star Tribune sent out an email last week, announcing the later this month their monthly fee is increasing. I did some quick math in my head, and my subscription cost is almost doubling.
I was going to reply to the email, to let someone know that even though we shared the same profession, I found their rate increase to be stunning. But then, I didn’t. What good would it do?
My only choices are to cancel my subscription and survive on 20 page views a month, or pay up and start buying canned domestic beer and boxed wine.