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Stu Bykofsky: Newspapers must end the free online lunch

I AM WRITING from the grave that this month's Philadelphia magazine dug for me - and everyone else who works at the Daily News and Inquirer.

I AM WRITING from the grave that this month's


magazine dug for me - and everyone else who works at the

Daily News




Cozy, isn't it? A little dank, a little snug, but so far no worms. (If you paid 75 cents for this paper, there's room for you, too, because the idea of paying for value seems so last-century.)

Headlined "1978 called. It wants its newspaper back" - what does that mean? - the 4,550-word obituary by Steve Volk spends much time bashing publisher Brian Tierney and predicting the demise of his papers.

While tuning up Tierney (who declined to speak with reporter Volk, a mistake for someone who owns newspapers) is merry fun, the truth is that all newspapers are in a spin. Tierney doesn't deserve solo blame for what's happening here, nor could he have prevented it.

Volk's major thrust goes like this: Tierney "doesn't even seem to realize that a new day, in the way Americans get their news, has dawned."

Actually he does. The question is, who is going to pay for it? The only thing that online readers seem willing to pay for is quality porn.

Volk believes that the death spiral is irreversible and suggests a couple of "new media" business models, but concedes that they won't work.

I have an idea for something that might.

On the advertising side, all newspapers have been crippled by the migration of classified ads to the Internet. That's gone and it's never coming back. We can, however, recapture content, if we dare.

Publishers sowed the seeds of their own destruction - pre-Tierney - by stampeding to the Internet and giving away their content for free, overturning a business model that had sustained them for centuries.

We must stop the insanity - now! It's time for some brave publisher - Hello, Brian - to stand up and howl: "No more free content!"

This company should charge online visitors a small fee, maybe $5 a month, for our content - which is copyrighted, then sue the pants off anyone stealing it.

Should Google "pick up" (steal) our stuff, if we successfully sued them for $1 billion, two good things happen: 1) Our money problems are solved; 2) everyone else will stop stealing our content.

I know some say that you can't put toothpaste back in the tube, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

If we dare charge, you might be thinking, freeloading online readers will skip the Inquirer and Daily News. They may, but they won't get the local news we cover like a blanket. They may go elsewhere for their "other" news.

But what if all publishers, seeing the Philadelphia story, also decided to end the free ride?

Yes, it's a long shot, but publishers might take it rather than let the ship go under. The "dead tree" editions will die long before online advertising - which sank 3 percent last year - pays the freight.

Bloggers can't replace newspapers.

The million bloggers comment mostly on what was revealed by resource-rich newspapers. No matter how many eyeballs they attract, blogs rarely "break through" because they are so many and so scattered. They lack newspapers' broad-based public square, where the masses assemble. They also lack the public megaphone and spotlight, which may be the print press' most important weapons.

Was it a blogger who turned a spotlight, and publicly shamed, the Postal Service for dumping mail? No, that was the Daily News. Did a blogger have the resources in time, talent and staff to drag DHS onto the front pages and into the grand-jury room? No, that was the Inquirer. Every day newspapers run stories that would not otherwise be told.

If newspapers die, that content will die, too. Can't you see that?

In passing, Volk lashes newspapers for hubris and arrogance. Some of us are guilty, sure. Can't we say the same about his magazine, which publishes lists of "the best" of this or that? Hubris - or hard work?

Do all (any?) bloggers have the training or the inclination to post only what is verifiable? Working for a newspaper means you have been vetted by virtue of education or experience, and you hew to ethical norms of accuracy, honesty and objectivity. Do we always succeed? No. But almost all of us make an honest effort, and we have angels on our shoulders (called editors) to ensure that we do.

That's why I'll trust the Associated Press' reporting of President Obama's recovery plan over anything I'll read at or

Is it arrogant to think that members of the Mainstream Media are a tad more impartial and professional than self-appointed "citizen journalists"?

If they're all the same to you, I'm a "citizen dentist." Call me. I can get that molar out fast.

As Volk writes from his smug platform, doesn't he realize that maybe half the stories in each issue of his magazine had their genesis in earlier newspaper reporting? We also provide the material for WIP and other talk radio to gab about all day, not to mention providing leads for TV-news-assignment desks. I'm not bragging or complaining. It's just true.

Volk predicts the "end times are coming" for newspapers unless they evolve, but he can't say how. Facing oblivion, he writes, is "one of the most profitable and colorful enterprises in the history of man, newspaper publishing."

Also one of the most vital to democracy.

"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government," Thomas Jefferson said, he'd "prefer the latter."

Jefferson didn't love newspapers, but he couldn't imagine the people getting important news without them.

The newspaper-fed Internet hasn't changed that at all. *

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