Philadelphia papers will charge for Web news

June 2, 2009

Elton John and Bernie Taupin might have to consider rewriting “Philadelphia Freedom.”Brian Tierney, chief executive of the company that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, plans to begin charging for news online by the end of the year, he said in an interview with a local Fox TV affiliate.

“I think by the end of this year we’ll starting doing what a lot of other newspapers are looking at doing and charging something for it,” Tierney said. “We can’t spend $53 million on newsroom costs and give it away on the back door in terms of things. There will be a small charge for that.”

When asked by Fox 29’s Steve Keeley when such a charge would go into effect, Tierney said “by the end of the year.”

Tierney also said he plans to take on Google over possibly getting money for Philadelphia Media Holdings from its content that resides on the search engine’s site.

Tierney discarded a move to an online-only product, saying that his company needed print journalists to be profitable. He also said he expected to be printing newspapers for the next 20 years.

Lots of newspapers are trying to find ways to get people to pay for the news that they put online, but so many papers have offered free Web access for so long that no one is sure that anyone will keep coming to the sites.The upside: They might make some more money if people feel like they can’t get the news they need and want anywhere else. The downside: If fewer people start visiting the website, advertisers will start demanding cheaper rates online. And it’s not like people will necessarily go back to the print edition either. Print ad sales are plummeting because people are going online for news, and there’s no guarantee that people will reacquire a print habit if they decide that they don’t want to reach for their wallets every time they log on.On the other hand, newspapers don’t have a lot of options. In the case of the Philly papers, Tierney’s company is going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization proceedings. With the company’s life on the line and a $53 million newsroom to run, what’s the harm in trying?And here’s one other thing to think about: Newspaper publishers are loath to discuss whether and how to charge. If they show up in a room and do that, they run the risk of being accused of collusion by the Justice Department. Should one or two papers do it, and then another paper should happen to start doing the same thing… where’s the proof of bad behavior? Prepare to see more of this, and soon.(Photo: Philadelphia’s William Penn shows off his Hockey colors. Reuters)

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