Paywalls and rebates

by andybechtel

Last month, my daily newspaper, The News & Observer of Raleigh, launched what it calls N&O Plus. Most people, however, call it a paywall.

The N&O is among more than 400 U.S. newspapers that charge for online content. As a faithful subscriber to the print edition, I can access its digital offerings as before.

The sharp decline of print advertising has led to cuts in staff and resources at newspapers across the United States; the slow rise of digital advertising on news sites is insufficient to make up for that lost revenue. That’s why some news organizations are turning to paywalls.

I’m torn on this issue. Like anyone, I like getting goods and services at the lowest possible cost. I don’t want to pay for something that was free for many years.

But I know that high-quality journalism is expensive to produce, and I am willing to pay to get it. That’s why I subscribe to the N&O and contribute to WUNC-FM, among other expenditures in my media budget.

As my friend and former colleague John Robinson suggested in a blog post last month, newspapers need to offer unique, engaging content to justify charging readers for access to their sites. I’d add that the stories, slideshows and other material behind paywalls need to be well-edited. Readers notice, after all.

To that end, I propose a rebate program that would allow readers to get money back for various editing glitches. Consider it to be a modest proposal.

For purposes of illustration, I’ll use N&O Plus. The digital subscription costs $70 a year. Under the rebate plan, subscribers would get refunds at the end of each year like so:

  • Picayune style error (such as canceled vs. cancelled): 1 cent
  • Punctuation error: 25 cents
  • Repeated or dropped word: 25 cents
  • Redundancy, cliche or garble: 25 cents
  • Routine spelling error: 50 cents
  • Corporate/military/governmental jargon: $1
  • Missing first reference to a source: $2
  • Misleading chart or map: $3
  • Misspelled proper name: $4
  • Fact error: $5
  • Libel, fabrication or plagiarism: full refund

So how can news sites avoid paying these rebates? Hire more copy editors, and let them do their work.

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