News sites’ fee plans could hurt education

Study: 22 percent of newspapers plan to charge for online content this year.
Study: 22 percent of newspapers plan to charge for online content this year.

Major newspapers are considering charging readers for access to their online content, marking a business shift that could have significant implications for education.

College students might not be affected as widely as middle and high school students, campus librarians say, because they can simply sign into their college’s research database and scroll through thousands of current and archived news articles, wire services, court opinions, and peer-reviewed journal articles.

“I don’t really see how it would change our practices,” said Lynn Scott Cochrane, library director at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. When students hit research roadblocks, Cochrane said, Denison librarians encourage use of the library’s massive database–a service that colleges pay for partly through built-in fees in student tuition.

“Most human beings seem to go to Google first,” she said, “but we like to point [students] back to library resources.”

Many K-12 schools, however, can’t afford pricey subscriptions to Nexis or other online news databases, some observers say–while others are concerned that the news industry’s changing business practices could lead to even higher fees for campus libraries.

Still others worry about the implications for a democracy if its citizens are encouraged to turn to blogs and free online sources of dubious credibility for their news and information, rather than pay for access to newspaper articles online.

Advocates for free web-based content said if the most reputable newspapers charge even minor fees for their stories, readers could be driven to less reliable blogs and free web sites like Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.

“When we begin to build pay walls, we begin to block off the public interest so only those with the means can have access to that information,” said Josh Stearns, program manager for the nonprofit organization Free Press, which aims to reform journalism and keep articles free for readers. “It’s creating a second class of information citizens.”

Stearns, who taught English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said a declining number of free online news services could leave college students without perspective and insight from multiple publications.

Denny Carter

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