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.

“To be critical thinkers, they need to be able to compare diverse sources of information,” he said. “We are going to see an information gap that will impact students in a bad way.”

Steadily declining advertising revenue and dwindling subscriptions to their print versions have prompted newspaper executives to weigh charging a fee for access to web-based content that has been free of charge before. A recent study by the American Press Institute found that 58 percent of the responding newspapers are considering charging fees for online articles. Of that group, 22 percent expect to introduce fees before the end of the year.

The study’s findings drew upon 118 interviews of newspaper executives in the U.S. and Canada.

Major media corporations such as NewsCorp.–owned by mogul Rupert Murdoch–are not alone in embracing fees for online content (the NewsCorp.-owned Wall Street Journal reportedly has 1 million paid subscribers to its web site). The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette introduced a web site in September that includes commentary on entertainment news, sports, and politics. The paper charges $3.99 for monthly access to the site, or $36 for a one-year subscription.

And the Associated Press is considering charging online news providers a premium for early access to its news stories. Currently, AP articles appear on all sites–including go-to sites such as Google and Yahoo!–simultaneously. The new model would allow web sites to post AP stories if they pay a fee to beat the competition.

Four of the largest technology companies–Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp., and Oracle Corp.–have expressed interest in developing an online payment system for publishers.

Separately, more than 1,000 newspapers and magazines have signed nonbinding letters of intent to join an internet fee system being assembled by Journalism Online LLC. It intends to begin collecting money on behalf of publishers before winter.

Although students can access news articles through their school’s database, charging for news stories online would “limit the scope of accessibility for readers,” including college students unwilling to pay to read an online story, said Meghan Paul, a senior at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus.

“It’ll just be more detrimental to newspapers,” said Paul, 21, adding that news sites get more readership when users post interesting stories on social networking outlets like Facebook and Twitter. “Papers would further lose their readership to blogs, tweets, and other social media.”

Publishing industry analysts said the news industry’s approach to charging for online content is likely to be gradual and varied in its approach, with some news services charging per-article fees and others collecting monthly or annual payments for unlimited access to news.

Harry Henry, vice president of data solutions for Outsell Inc., a research and advisory firm focused on the information, publishing, and education industries, said despite the push toward a paid model, there will always be news sites that maintain free articles and other news content.

“The model is still uncertain,” Henry said. “But … I think students being students, they’ll always look for free.”

Henry said the industry will see “experimenters” emerge in the next few years, but pay-to-read models won’t be widespread for at least three years, he added.

Small colleges might be affected more than larger universities if news sites begin charging for articles, Stout said, because the new business model will cost libraries more, and those increases will be passed down to students. Students on a campus with an enrollment of 2,000, for instance, might pay more than a student whose university has an enrollment in the tens of thousands.

Dallas Stout, a faculty member at the California-based University of the Rockies, said an introduction of fees for news stories wouldn’t affect students on many U.S. campuses where newspaper articles are not considered a viable research resource. Professors would rather see citations from papers published by researchers, not a New York Times story summarizing their findings, he said.

“Chances are the article in the [newspaper] is some journalist’s rehash of a research study that came out,” Stout said. “It’s not pure.”

He added: “At a lot of schools, [using newspaper citations] is just not allowed.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this article.

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