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In defense of The Seattle Times charging for online access

There's plenty of backlash to The Seattle Times' decision to start charging for access to its website. But Dave Ross and Luke Burbank are among many who argue the service provided is worth far more than the cost.( Griswold)

There’s plenty of backlash to The Seattle Times’ decision to start charging for access to its website. But Dave Ross and Luke Burbank are among many who argue the service provided is worth far more than the minimal cost.

“There is a huge personnel cost there. They’ve got the biggest newsroom in the region. You’ve got to pay people to do that kind of thing full time,” said Ross on Monday’s Ross and Burbank Show.

Hundreds of people have lambasted the decision in comments on The Seattle Times web site following the announcement by executive editor David Boardman. He defends the decision arguing “you get what you pay for” and pointing out the economics of the news business have changed drastically and precipitously declining ad revenue no longer pays the bills.

But the vast majority of commenters disagreed vehemently:

“Pay for this crap? Good luck.”

“BYE BYE S-times … the Internet is huge and free of info to inform all.”

“There are hundreds of news outlets where I can get my info. The NY Times and the Seattle Times do not hold a monopoly on information dissemination. Besides, using other sources reveals the glaring biases of these publications.”

But Ross and Burbank argue critics clearly don’t understand the role The Seattle Times plays in generating a vast majority of local news, and how most other news outlets in the region rely on the Times original reporting as the basis for their own stories.

“Everybody knows that everybody else including us feeds off the Seattle Times. We haven’t got the kind of reporting staff that they do,” Ross said.

While many commenters referenced turning to free outlets such as for their news, Burbank points out the PI has just a tiny staff that does little original reporting, primarily aggregating and repackaging content from other sources much like many other outlets ranging from The Huffington Post to The Drudge Report.

“There’s like five million weird pop-up ads that happen [on the PI] and 90 percent of the stories are just reposts. And I don’t say that to criticize the people who are still at the PI, they’re doing their absolute best. But it’s very hard to create a real journalistic thing when you have five or six employees,” said Burbank.

It’s a difficult choice for the Times, which will likely lose a number of online readers when it first shifts to the digital subscriptions in mid-March (which will cost $.99 per week for the first month, then $3.99 per week going forward, or free with any paid print subscription.) While many of the commenters complain it’s not worth it, Ross argued the alternative is a complete lack of objective reporting on critical local and regional issues.

“What happens then is that each politician, each political organization, each lobbying group gets to make the news whatever they want. There’s no paid, objective arbitrator of what’s true and what’s not anymore,” Ross said. “Everybody who pitches you a news story, if this kind of thing doesn’t work, is going to have a pecuniary interest in you believing what they say.”

While many commenters complain The Seattle Times and other outlets display a “liberal bias”, Ross disagreed.

“Compared to the unpaid media out there, I’m sorry, the Times does a great job. They actually care about the facts. I’m sure reporters have an individual agenda but it’s certainly a lot less obvious than on most of the other private websites you go to,” he said.

There’s no questioning the number of stories broken by the Seattle Times that would not have been exposed without the resources behind the region’s largest news gathering operation. Boardman cited several recent examples including reporting on questionable ethical moves by Port of Seattle Commissioner Rob Holland that led to his resignation, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning series on state Methadone policies that led to “more than 2,000 unnecessary deaths.”

The Times move is far from unprecedented. As Boardman points out, over 400 news outlets nationwide have implemented some fee for their content. But with a generation raised on free content, there are plenty of questions about whether enough people will pay to keep the Times afloat.

Burbank predicted that ultimately, the vast majority of people who care about local and regional news will bite the bullet and pay for the service.

“Really and truly you’ve got to at some point start to teach people they do have to pay for stuff. I bet you in five years, most of us – at least the adults among us – will sort of realize that you have to pay for things that cost money to create,” he said.

A small minority of commenters on the Times site agreed.

“A world without quality, unbiased investigative journalism is well….it’s N.Korea with a little China sprinkled in for further oppression. I like many are more than happy to pay for an online subscription to the Times,” wrote one.

Time will tell.

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