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DAVID ROSMAN: Free news is a business model worth replicating

Wednesday, November 24, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:18 a.m. CST, Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving. According to Stan Freberg, comic and actor, the holiday celebrates the mayoral election in Plymouth, 1621; America’s first fundraising campaign dinner. Of course, the "Indians" were invited; they represented a substantial voting block at the time. I like this Thanksgiving model.

I hope Tom Warhover and crew will consider a new business model of our sheet, since last week's gift the Columbia Daily Tribune gave the Missourian.

One issue dominating local airways, pixels and print recently is the Tribune’s decision to have readers pay for the privilege to access the Trib’s Web site after 10 free articles. The Waters family is taking the stance, true as it is, that it costs money to publish the website. Advertising revenue and regular subscription payments evidently cannot subsidize the time, energy and staff required to produce Internet contributions, so the readers must ante up.

Andy Waters, vice president of interactive media for the Tribune, said it is a business model whose time has come. The Tribune is not alone. U.S. News and World Report notified its readership this week that its print edition will no longer be available; its presence will be online only. Newsday, the Chicago Sun-Times and others are toying with the idea of paid online subscriptions.

Yet one newspaper group seems to be able to balance advertising revenue, print editions and Web content with ease. How? According to Denver’s Westword editor Patricia Calhoun, the business model is simple. The paper is FREE, and free is good.

The Westword is not alone. It is an affiliate of Village Voice Media, which includes St. Louis’s Riverfront Times, Kansas City’s The Pitch and, of course, New York’s The Village Voice, along with 10 other papers. All weeklies, all free and all making money.

They are more than free. All strive for better and more diverse content, remain on the "cutting edge," are not afraid to take a swing at anyone who deserves it and maintain the highest standards in quality and ethics. Try Aimee Levitt’s "Kevin Jackson wrote the book on how to win (white) friends and influence (black) people" in the Riverfront Times as an example.

The "Best of" series content is far better than that found in Vox. Columns titled "A Study in Crap" and "Ask a Mexican" push the content envelope. I can think of a few candidates for "Schmuck of the Week."

Free personal ads means a larger readership and more revenue. In fact, the personals are better than the comics are for entertainment, "Sick, sick, sick. Help me feel better!" "Marry me, have my children, then we’ll go out to dinner." "Love is not the answer. Sex is the answer."

All are loaded with paid advertising, allowing free distribution, and free and paid classified ads on "The Backpage." The plan is to continue free distribution and Web access. The key word: FREE.

How successful is free? The Pitch claims over a quarter of a million readers in eight counties. The RFT claims over 360,000 readers, large enough to surpass one-half of top 25 U. S. dailies and places it in the same league as the Post-Dispatch’s Sunday edition.

Reading the 700-plus comments concerning its "metered pay" system, it appears the Tribune has entered the proverbial slaughterhouse. It may lose substantial advertising business. The Waters family has given the Missourian an early holiday gift.

The Missourian needs to reconsider its own model and take a serious look at the models that are working. More local stories concerning crime, business and entertainment; more cutting-edge and harder-hitting political and business coverage. More than 10 pages of content. More sidewalk distribution boxes.

So Tom and crew, while you are eating your toms (sorry for that), consider this: Why aren't 20,000 MU students reading our paper? Why aren't 20,000 central Missourians reading our paper? Because it lacks hard-hitting news and costs money?

Happy holidays. Eat well. Don't forget those who do not have a roof over their heads and no food for their tables. Shalom, Salam, Peace, Free.

David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. You can read more of David's commentaries at InkandVoice.com and New York Journal of Books.


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Comments

Gregory Mitchell November 25, 2010 | 5:47 a.m.

I’m a diehard supporter of print media, if print media disappears, we’ll will lose so much of our history, not the headlines, but the little things, the birth announcements and obituaries or funeral notices. Just to name a few. However I refuse to pay for online access to the Tribune. I’m a full time student on a very fixed budget, and that’s just a luxury that I will have to go without. I guess I’ll just have to keep getting my free copy of the Tribune from Columbia College. While I was reading you article the first thing that came to mind was the RFT model, glad you mentioned it.
Have a great Thanksgiving,
Greg

(Report Comment)
John Schultz November 25, 2010 | 8:50 a.m.

To be nitpicky, birth announcements have been gone from local papers for several years now.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield December 8, 2010 | 1:48 p.m.

It's been a week, and the pay wall appears as flawed as most other newspapers'. Sure, it warns you if you're not a sub and are coming up on the 10-view limit -- but only if your browser has its cookies enabled. I've read a couple dozen stories using Firefox with the cookies shut off. What kind of pay wall is that?

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 8, 2010 | 3:40 p.m.

It's taken a week, but I've finally stopped going there, and unfollowed their twitter feeds. I didn't run into the paywall, but being able to participate was obviously the only reason I was there.

The h4x354x0r

(Report Comment)

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