Editorials as Paid Content? Expert Witness about Newspaper Vending Boxes?

My company’s business is the busiest it’s been since the height of the dot.com boom in 1999, which is another way to say that we’re swamped.

Or maybe swamped isn’t an apt verb because there’s no muck involved.

The work onsite for my major client is growing by leaps and bounds. The online video news and video search sector of Internet media is blossoming the way that text search did ten years ago. And I’ve received a flurry of speaking engagements in various places (Los Angeles; Birmingham, England; Albany, New York; Las Vegas) during the next four weeks on various topics (future media in universities, SMS and weblogging for newspapers; what newspapers must do to survive; and future innovative strategies for local television stations, respectively) that will each require preparation of different presentations. Eighty-hour weeks have been the norm this year.

The downside is that I owe to a magazine editor a long-overdue article that I hope will be almost as notable (or infamous) as one I submitted to that magazine a year ago this month. Also, I owe two non-clients some pro bono that help I’d agree to provide, which is point of this posting.

I need help finding the following:

    1. A case study about newspaper websites that charge for access to their Editorial & Opinions pages.

    A newspaper’s website staff has desperately asked me for some data to refute their newspaper publisher’s wishes to start charging for access to that portion of their site. The publisher’s belief is that his newspaper’s editorials and news opinion columns are too valuable ‘to be given away for free’ on the Internet.

    His new-media staff has asked me for case studies, data, or examples to reinforce their contrary belief that refute that charging for access to those pages will hurt their site’s traffic and overall revenues.

    I’d routinely do such work, but this newspaper isn’t a client and the research work involved would require a committment of time that I cannot now afford to give away for free. But the website staff’s cause is good. They and I hate how some publishers make impulsive, destructive decisions that are based soley upon flimsy anecdotes and not upon facts and data. So, I’m trying to do what I can for the website staff within the tiny free time that I have available. I’m thus sending up a flare: Does anyone know of cases where a news website charged for access to Editorial & Opinions? What were those sites’ results?

    I know about newspapers websites that charge for access to the answers to crossword puzzles or for e-mailed routine delivery of specific columns, but none that charge for access to their editorials.

    As a consultant, the question I’d ask is: Will charging for access to these webpages generate revenues that will overcome whatever overall website advertising revenues are lost from walling off those pages from free access? I think it won’t, but don’t yet have any data.

    2. The owners of a shopping mall here in America have asked if I know of any newspaper print circulation executives, current or retired, who might be willing to testify in a court case that pits a municipality against several major newspapers. The trick here is the testimony would be against the newspapers.

    The municipality leases a newsstand within one of its buildings. Several newspaper companies have places coin-operated newspaper vending machines within that building without the permission of the municipality or its building manager. When the lessee of the newsstand complained to the manager that the machines were cutting into his business selling those same newspapers to building visitors, the managers ejected the machines. However, the newspaper companies have sued the municipality, claiming a First Amendment right to place those vending machines within the municipal building.

    I’m a former reporter, editor, and publisher who defends legitimate claims of the that Amendment rights. But this is a case of business people misusing the First Amendment.

    The municipality isn’t forbidding the distribution of those newspapers (or opinion or free speech) within that building. In fact, the municipality has leased space to one of those newspapers’ own retailers who is trying to sell those newspapers within the building. But the newspapers’ publishers want to have even more distribution points within that building, without themselves leasing space for that purpose and regardless of the municipality’s right to control commercial usages of the building’s space (including vending machine space).

    The publishers also have an additional profit motive for positioning newspaper vending machines near a newspaper retailer– the publisher takes 100 percent of the sales price from newspapers sold from the vending machine rather than 50 percent from the sales prices from those sold by the retailer.

    So, I don’t think this isn’t a First Amendment issue. It’s a case of businesses (the newspaper companies) cloaking themselves in the First Amendment while trying to increase their product sales and margins, regardless of the property rights of the municipality that is already permitting distribution of those newspapers on that property. Cases like this distract, muddy, and confuse legitimate First Amendment issues.

    Unfortunately, few people, particularly newspaper circulation executives, are willing to provide expert testimony that this is not clearly considered a First Amendment case within the newspaper industry. Most circulation executives worry too much about their salaries or pensions. Many newspaper industry executives are reluctant to testify in any way against the interests of the industry.

    That’s too bad. When the newspaper industry starts cloaking its purely commercial interests under Constitutional guise, the industry is no better than other industry that newspaper editorials criticize for those purposes.

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