I can’t remember the last time I bought a newspaper. Perhaps there has been a few random purchases over the last decade, but nothing in particular come to mind. As soon as newspapers started posting their news on the web, I cancelled any remaining subscriptions I had. No more newspaper on the front step, no more carrying the paper around in my briefcase, no stacking up old newspapers until I put them into recycling. It’s been all digital, all the time.
And, of course, it’s free. That played small (read: big) part of my behavioral change. Newspapers really screwed themselves on the whole digital thing, didn’t they? Did they not know about people like me? People who were only too happy to cut their subscription from the budget and get their news for free. Sure, I can no longer do the crossword, but that seems like a small sacrifice.
Now papers are trying to get us to pay again. This is not an unreasonable request, but many, like me, having jumped at the idea of paying for our digital newspapers. The problem for newspapers isn’t just that they started giving away content for free over the web. When you think about it, newspapers have never been able to come up with a solid delivery mechanism.
One of the traditional ways of newspaper delivery was the paperboy. Under this delivery method, newspapers would turn over their product to teen or pre-teen boys and trust that they would get the papers to their subscribers. Think about young boys in this age group you might know. It’s a wonder anyone ever got a paper. Even with a responsible paper boy (or a paper boy with parents who made him be responsible), this method was still problematic. Ideally, papers were tossed in the vicinity of the front door. But rarely did the paperboy interrupt his route due to an imperfect toss that ended up in the bushes or under a front porch. And then there was the weather factor. Even when papers were stuffed into plastic sleeves, it was little match for a hard rain or worse.
Another pre-digital delivery method is the newspaper vending box, which are still around but slowly disappearing. With the vending box, you put in your money, turn a latch, and a stack of papers sit inside. It was like a public trust. You’re supposed to take just one. These boxes were often quite easy to break into, if the latches on them worked at all. Even if payment was necessary, was there ever a time when two (or more) friends were standing at a vending box and whomever put their money in didn’t then take a paper for everyone? The proper name for this practice is theft. It is, however, commonly accepted.
Can you imagine any other vending machine set up this way? It would be like having a soda machine set up like a refrigerator: you insert your money and open the door, where there’d be cans just stacked and sitting before you, waiting to be grabbed. Of course we’d never see anything like that. Newspaper vending boxes are really one of a kind.
I’m sure newspapers have smart people working for them, but they best they could do for delivery of their product was to either trust the work ethic of a twelve-year-old boy or trust the rest of us to do the right thing at a vending box. In that context, it becomes a little easier to understand how newspapers made the very bad decision to let us get used to getting our digital news for free and then expect us to pay for it.
Now I’m going to search my Twitter feed for links to pay-only articles. They seem to remain free if you go that route. Go figure.