Newspapers: Making the Case for Free

(Originally posted at

The future of newspapers may well be in Colorado, once home to the late “gonzo journalism
provocateur Hunter S. Thomson and today home to no less that 12 free
dailies. All of these papers are very local, and perhaps more
importantly, successful. This trend is even more interesting in light
of tough times at the “real” state papers like the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post.

isn’t a Colorado-only phenomenon. Palo Alto, Calif., in the heart of
Silicon Valley and arguably Ground Zero in the “print is dead”
movement, has two free daily newspapers. A free paper in Santa Monica,
Calif., may soon expand.

Online advertising, pay walls, premium
subscriptions – newspapers are trying anything to find new business
models. But the future of print’s survival may be in Free.

free. No subscription, purely ad-driven free newspapers; hyper-targeted
to neighborhoods and towns, not cities or regions. And rather than
published in the morning when the news is at its most stale and
competes for attention with people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds, these
papers can come out in the late afternoon (for you old-timers,
afternoon papers used to be commonplace in the United States.) A free,
local, afternoon paper gives you analysis, context and hometown
perspective to the news of the day.

“Most revenue for newspapers
comes from advertising sales that subsidize the per-paper cost,” Curtis
Robinson, editor of the free Portland (Maine) Daily Sun,
says on the paper’s web site. “We just work on the model — like
broadcast TV and nearly all Internet sites — that people want free news
and that advertisers want to reach that readership. Media gurus
sometimes assert that free dailies are the “transition” from
traditional print media to online-only news — which sounds okay, except
that free dailies did well before the Internet.”

The Case for Free (and Local)

a popular conceit that people ever paid for content via their newspaper
subscriptions. What they actually paid for was the means of
distribution — paper, ink, presses, gasoline, tires and so on.

were brought along for the ride – the more subscriptions a paper had
the more ads that could be sold, which meant more pages and then, you
guessed it, higher distribution costs.

This worked fine until the
Internet Age. Newspapers made the mistake of looking at the Internet as
simply another means of distribution, figuring that people would come
to their web sites and read the news, and more importantly read the ads
that helped pay for the web servers.

But search trumped any
vision of people reading the news only at a newspaper’s web site. Now
they could read the news on Google, Yahoo!, MSN or via RSS and Twitter
feeds directly on their computer desktops or mobile devices. New media
companies like Google saw value in the content, not the distribution,
and traditional newspapers have been trying to catch up ever since.

may be the answer. And by staying hyper local – or a “micro daily” as
Robinson says – the old distribution costs are greatly reduced. The
paper is now attractive to readers and to advertisers, who see greater
value in ads targeted to their most likely customers.

The editors of the free Palo Alto Daily Post put it more bluntly on their web site (where you won’t find any news):

away news online is a dumb way to do business. News is valuable. We put
our news in print. The news creates demand for our paper, and increased
readership makes our ads more effective than advertising in any other

Still Much Work to Do

The latest “State of the News Media
report from the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism offers few
surprises: Big-city papers continue to have the worst of it. But small
dailies and community weeklies are generally doing better. “The latter
come closer to the late-20th century position of newspapers as the
dominant source for local information and the place for local merchants
to advertise,” the report said.

The New York Times
launched regional supplements to its San Francisco and Chicago
editions, and even ESPN got into the act, starting regional sites in
Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles, challenging papers there for
the hearts and minds of local sports fans. Yet these new products still
don’t give locals what they really want – high school sports coverage,
City Hall and Neighborhood Association news, or why that helicopter was
circling overhead last night.

All of this news can and should be
delivered online and via mobile devices, especially when it comes to
time-sensitive information or live events. And location-tagging
services like Foursquare and Gowalla will make the news event more
local, and therefore more relevant.

The future of newspapers is
still comprised more of bits than atoms; this transition can’t be
stopped, nor should it be. But local print dailies have a place and a
purpose. They appeal to young and old and everyone in between.

a world drowning in fragments of fleeting “content,” print is the king
of context and narrative. And free is the way forward for print to
remain relevant – and survive.

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