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As the industry struggles to stay afloat, more and more newspapers are charging readers for online content. But instead of being straightforward, some papers refuse to call a spade a spade. (greenkozi/ flickr)

From family-owned independents to the largest national chain, it’s become clear that most U.S. newspapers will soon charge readers to visit their websites.

And when they finally decide to take the leap, these papers typically trot out a column or interview by a top editor or publisher explaining why they’re pulling the switcheroo.

Sometimes they’re straightforward.

But more often, they tend to sound the same — by turns sheepish and defiant, full of vague buzzwords and unclear reasoning. Here’s what I wish they’d say.

Dear Readers,

Since this is a newspaper, and we’re supposed to put the biggest news right at the top, I’ll get right to it: We’re going to start charging you money to visit our website. That’s obviously a big change, but it doesn’t look like online advertising will start paying the bills anytime soon. So now it’s your turn.

If you’re thinking that sounds kind of desperate, you’re right.

Newspapering was a stable thing for a long time. Then the Web came along and unlocked an endless supply of ad space — which, unlike old print advertising, also came with the ability to track how well an ad performed.

So we’ve had to cut costs, and that mostly means people. Buyouts, layoffs, unpaid days off, renegotiated contracts — you name it, we’ve done it. And I know you can tell the difference. Between advertisers buying fewer pages and fewer journalists producing news, our product has definitely declined. If you’ve picked up the printed version of the paper on any given Monday, you know what I’m talking about. The thing is so thin that when the paperboys try to toss it, it just kind of flutters away. I hear a few of them have taken to folding it up into a paper airplane. But at least we haven’t started cutting the number of days we publish! Not yet, anyway.

We’ve tried some new ways of making money. A lot of us did daily deals when the Groupon thing was hot. Some of us thought tablet computer apps were an easy way to rebuild the old print castle, and even started giving away or selling discounted tablets with subscriptions.

None of that really worked, though, so now we turn to you.

Look, I’m not going to blow smoke and say we’re actually providing you more choices, or just trying to bring you the news “wherever and whenever you need it.” I won’t try to pretend this is about fairness, and only getting what you pay for. You deserve to know what’s really going on.

For a long time, we had a deal. You paid a little bit for the newspaper, but it was kind of a token amount. We took your eyeballs and sold them to advertisers for big money, and that’s what paid for almost everything. They got an audience, we got cash, you got news. Great job, everyone! Meeting adjourned.

In those days, it made sense to charge readers a little something for the dead-tree version because it cost so damn much to produce. Union contracts, printing presses, barrels of ink, huge piles of newsprint, trucks, paperboys — it’s a pretty serious operation, and each new copy adds to the costs. That’s why the Internet version was free to use! Sure, the software and servers and everything you need to publish digital news costs money, too. But not as much. Once you publish the digital version, even with multiple updates per day, it goes out to everyone, instantly. Plus, all of the technology we use tends to get more powerful and cheaper over time, unlike newsprint (or Teamsters). Plus, keeping the digital version free helped grow our audience online, which helped us get more online advertising.

Man, I wish that would have worked. But now we have to try to get money from you for the privilege of using our digital product. It’s a big change to the unwritten contract we used to have, and you need to understand that.

I really hope you’ll stick with us. The good news is it looks like the big guys in the industry have figured out a way to make paywalls work. In fact, any newspaper not building some sort of paywall right now is basically leaving cash on the table, and we sure can’t afford that.

But I should also point out that this might just be a short-term fix. You can tell by looking at how our online subscription packages are discounted (or even free!) to print subscribers, to the point where it actually makes financial sense to order a Sunday paper that you will throw directly into the recycle bin just to save money on the website entry fee.

I know — crazy, right? That’s because print advertising, as much as it has declined, is still the way we make most of our money. If we can juice the numbers by sending out some print “subscriptions” that won’t really be read, we figure it doesn’t matter. We’re just hoping to prop up the print side of our business (especially for older readers who won’t care to figure out some workaround) and take in some more circulation revenue, too.

Won’t that shut out the next generation of possible readers? What happens when the Baby Boomers, ahem, lose the ability to subscribe? Hell if I know. We’re not in long-term planning mode here, people. Look, say what you will about newspaper bosses, but we’re not exactly shrewd businessmen. Most of your garden-variety journalists chose the profession in part because of their terrible math skills.

So subscribe. Please. We really need it. Don’t make me come around twice a year and do a little dance for money like a public-radio pledge drive — although, come to think of it, those guys’ business model is looking pretty attractive right about now. Man, how did this happen?

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Tags: Innovation

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