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Should readers pay for online news?

If you’ve read anything about the newspaper business lately, you’ll discover the ongoing discussion among industry executives of large, medium and small regarding putting up a pay wall on their Internet sites.

This conversation didn’t begin yesterday. Some newspapers went to a pay-only site back in the late 1990s. Still others are attempting to find out how introducing a pay wall will affect their Web site traffic and the circulation of their print products.A pay-only site means a newspaper charges for people to read the content on their Web sites. The leading example of this is The Wall Street Journal. If you want to read its stories online, you have to pay.

Rupert Murdoch, the newspaper mogul, purchased The Wall Street Journal in 2007 and kept the pay-wall. Now, Mr. Murdoch says he’ll begin charging fees for all his news media Web sites within this year.

When asked about readers migrating to other site after he introduces the pay for all news sites, Mr. Murdoch said, “we’re making our content better and differentiated from other people.” Most experts in the newspaper industry have predicted some kind of pay method for the Internet news sites within the year. But to do so, said Lionel Barber of the Financial Times of London, those newspapers will have to offer “high quality content and greater investment in journalists working close to the communities they serve.”

Even the former managing editor of the Honolulu Advertiser, Arthur Wall, wrote on his blog he quit subscribing to printed editions of newspapers after he purchased an Amazon Kindle, which allows him to subscribe to versions he may receive over the electronic device. Now, Mr. Wall, 84, subscribes via Kindle to The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He receives the rest of his news from Web sites.

That large national newspapers consider a pay method for their Web sites would seem reasonable. After all, they are — large.

But consider this. Some medium and small papers have begun charging for Web content. A couple of reasons follow for this: Those newspapers want to drive their readers back to the print editions or those newspapers believe they can offer news quickly and efficiently through a Web site, but because there is extra value added via blogs, video and sound bites, the consumers should pay.

The Newport Daily News in Newport, Rhode Island, a 12,000-circulation daily, began charging for its content in June 2009. To read the newspaper online without a print subscription costs $5 a day, $10 a week or $35 a month. To subscribe to both print and online costs $11 a month or $100 per year. Obits, classifieds and the stories on page 1 are offered on the Internet site for free. Buck Sherman, the paper’s publisher, said the pay-for-Internet idea was to “drive people back to the printed paper.” It has worked, apparently. Single copy sales are up by 8 percent. Web site traffic has declined by 30 percent. The newspaper has limited competition.

The argument against a pay site rests in this: People have hundreds of choices for news on the Web. This argument holds, unless the newspaper is a niche product, such as a business or sports journal. Industry experts even predict smaller newspapers that carry primarily local coverage might consider a pay model because they, too, write for a certain community. Some outside the industry say they will not pay for smaller papers on the Web. The question is, then, where would they get local news? Would they return to the print edition?

The other question raised in the industry rests in the value of local news content — something readers can’t get anywhere else. Are readers willing to pay for news about their local government, police, schools and local organizations? When do they want to know this? Do they want to know quickly or are they willing to wait until the following morning or afternoon when they pick up the newspaper.

By their habits readers have told the industry they want the news delivered to them on their schedules and not on that of the newspaper. Is this so?

Weigh in. E-mail me at leesha.faulkner@selmatimesjournal.com and tell me what you think about this debate. Would you pay to read news on a Web site?

Leesha Faulkner is editor of The Selma Times-Journal. She may be reached at 410-1730 or e-mail her at leesha.faulkner@selmatimesjournal.com.