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Eye on the Island: October 29, 2009

News Outlets Adapt

Cablevision-owned Newsday is charging $5 a week for access to effective Wednesday, Oct. 28, a fee it is waiving for subscribers to Newsday’s print edition or Cablevision’s Optimum Online Internet service.

I can understand why Cablevision is trying to boost its bottom line. News-gathering is a labor-intensive process, and what’s the sense of giving the final product away ‘for free,’ even though online advertisers are contributing financially to the undertaking?

But recent history indicates that, with the notable exception of the Wall Street Journal online, a site which businesses are willing to pay a fee to access, typical news consumers have been unenthusiastic about paying for online news content. Times Select, The New York Times’ paid subscription online service, began in 2005 and ended in 2007, although it cost significantly more than $5 a week. Nonetheless, it is unclear to me how Newsday is going to succeed where The New York Times failed.

Nielsen Online reported that had 2.28 million unique visitors in September 2009, according to an article in this month’s Editor & Publisher. That put in 16th place nationally among newspaper websites, behind No. 1, The New York Times’ free online presence (21.5 million unique visitors) and the second-place finisher, The Wall Street Journal’s subscription-only online site (10.4 million). USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times rounded out the top five most frequently visited newspaper websites, in that order. They are available free of charge.

“Approximately 75 percent of Long Island households are already Newsday home delivery and/or Optimum Online customers and will enjoy unlimited access to, as will all of Cablevision’s Optimum Online customers throughout the New York area, which total 2.5 million households,” wrote Terry Jimenez, Newsday’s publisher, in a letter to the paper’s readers.

Working on that assumption, 25 percent of Long Island households, which have already shown little interest in reading news about Nassau and Suffolk counties, are the target audience. Newsday’s content would be of limited interest to anyone living anywhere other than Long Island.

Those who don’t subscribe to Newsday, have their Internet service with an entity other than Optimum Online, and refuse to pay $5 a week for Newsday’s online content, will be left with a few morsels of information they can still access for free at the home page, weather forecasts, obituaries, school closings, as well as classified, community program, movie and stock listings.

Newsday isn’t the only major newspaper trying to find an Internet era business model. The New York Times announced this month that it will reduce by year-end 2009 the head count in its news room by about 100 positions. The number is equivalent to 8 percent of the newsroom, the Times itself acknowledged, in prominently reporting on its own situation in the Times’ Business section.

Voluntary buyouts are being offered first and, if not enough Times employees take the package, layoffs will follow, the Times reported.

All of this begs two other questions: At what point will visitors to the Times’ website notice that fewer reporters and editors means less news content, and will they even care?

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism.