The Billings Outpost

Crawling, unwillingly, into the internet age

When a business can’t wait to tell you what a great deal it is offering you, without quite explaining what the deal is, watch out.

That was my response in May when The Billings Gazette unveiled its Connect Me Local program. The unveiling included a front-page article by Publisher Mike Gulledge and two full pages inside, all aimed at telling me what a wonderful life I would have once I signed up. There were pictures of Gazette reporters, pictures of front pages, even pictures of ads.

What a deal, Mr. Gulledge explained. A print subscription, online access, apps and a new e-edition, all at one low price.

“Your world has changed and part of our mission is to deliver news to you in a way that matches your needs,” Mr. Gulledge wrote.

OK, so what was all that going to cost me? Nowhere in the big Sunday spread did that information appear to be available. We had to wait for the price to show up just as it did before the world changed: in the mail. It was a bite: $28 a month, up about 30 percent from what we were paying for the print edition alone.

It all kicked in this Sunday, leaving us once again at the crossroads passed by so many in the digital age: Is it worth it? Newspapers have been my daily fodder for nearly all of my adult life, and most of my childhood, too.

But many of my favorite writers have left the Gazette. Much of what I used to read there – batting averages, for example - is more complete and up-to-date online.

What’s more, I’ve learned to live without the electronic Gazette. When online was free, I used the Gazette on the internet because it was easier than hauling newsprint to the office if I wanted to check something out.

But there wasn’t much I cared about there that I couldn’t find in the paper, and some things about the online edition were worse. Anonymous online comments are a lousy substitute for signed letters to the editor.

When the online edition started limiting free hits, I cut way back, and I quit linking to Gazette stories in my blog so readers could preserve their free hits for rainy days.

Then the Gazette started requiring me to answer a survey question before gaining access to an online story. When that happened, I gave up reading online altogether, except in emergencies. Warning: Some survey answers I gave under duress may not have reflected the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Not that I am unsympathetic to the Gazette’s plight. Mr. Gulledge said the Gazette had 12 million page views online during April. Translating that into dollars is the tricky part, as was abundantly evident at the annual meeting of the Montana Newspaper Association in Butte last month. A panel of publishers was dominated by how to deal with the internet.

Most publishers said they were trying to find ways to make up for lost print revenues. The Missoula Independent is hosting rock concerts, bringing it into occasional conflict with local promoters. The Great Falls Tribune sponsors a women’s expo. Both the Trib and the Bozeman Chronicle said they have cut staff and consolidated certain expenses.

“Business is good, but it’s not as good as it used to be,” said the Chronicle’s Stephanie Pressly.

Matt Gibson, publisher of the Independent, said that weekly’s revenue peaked when medical marijuana was widely available in 2010. Then state legislators decided that was a little more free-market capitalism than they could stand, and marijuana advertising dried up.

As far as he can tell, he said, the only really successful online companies are Google and Facebook. “It’s a government problem,” he said. “Google’s going to have to be regulated.”

We at the Outpost know the feeling, as this scrawny edition demonstrates. Although we are sticking to newsprint, we have abandoned brick and mortar and are now putting the paper together electronically from our homes.

Across country, the Pew Research Center figures that some 54,000 jobs in magazines and newspapers have been lost. Some of those have gone to the internet, but many have just disappeared.

Statistics released during the meeting indicate the dimensions of the problem. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of newspaper readers vote, and newspapers are considered the most reliable source on local political and civic issues.

But more than two-thirds of those surveyed said they get most of their election news from television. Newspapers limped in at just under 40 percent (multiple responses were allowed) among independent voters and only 27 percent of Republicans. Nearly a quarter of Democrats and Republicans said they got most of their political news from the internet, perhaps not always realizing that nearly a third of what they read there actually came from newspapers.

So newspapers have the worst of all worlds: They spend more than anybody to cover the news, and they have more readers than ever, all while rapidly losing the revenues that made that money tree bloom. And it remains uncertain just how effective internet advertising is, despite ads that force readers to look at them and sometimes listen to them before the news shows up.

So having failed to talk me into going online for local news, now the Gazette is trying to push me there. I understand the reason for the push, but that doesn’t mean I will go there. I’ve got my own problems.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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