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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The pay wall debate

Posted By on 08.28.12 at 07:34 AM

The bad news
  • The bad news
The Lincoln Journal Star is a newspaper whose website I’ve visited sporadically for years because of its coverage of University of Nebraska athletics, which have interested me since I met my wife, who went to school there. I happened to be visiting the site one Tuesday morning in 2001, and spotted a news bulletin about a plane flying into the World Trade Center. It was such unlikely news from such an obscure and random source that I refused to believe it. I shifted to nytimes.com to see if the Journal Star bulletin could actually be true.

But for following NU varsity sports in all their vicissitudes, the Journal Star was my go-to venue. It's where I kept up as big games were won and lost, coaches were hired and fired, all-Americans were hoisted on shoulders after covering themselves with glory and tossed in paddy wagons for acting out in bars. In one horrible incident, a star soccer player was shot to death on her front lawn by a stray bullet fired from an antique derringer by someone wrongly accused of stealing shot glasses during a party celebrating the end of the spring soccer season.

I got to know several bylines, and for a time exchanged occasional e-mails with the reporter who covered the soccer team. He eventually became the managing editor.

Over the summer I always forget about journalstar.com. But as August ends fall sports get under way, and I return. The other day I wanted to read about the volleyball team’s big early-season match against UCLA, the top-ranked team in the country. I went to the site and clicked on the story.

I couldn't read it. Blocking the game report on my desktop screen was a window announcing the Journal Star’s new pay wall. The price of that story was now $9.95 a month, which would get me “unlimited access to premium content across all of journalstar.com.” That isn’t much money, but I couldn’t imagine paying it. “Premium” might be a synonym for “vital” to an engaged reader who lives in Lincoln. To me, it was another way of saying "frivolous luxury.” I can’t defend paying any money at all to indulge in a guilty pleasure that even my wife, the reason for it, doesn’t understand.

All these years I’ve read the Journal Star for nothing—and of course never once patronized its advertisers. Finally, the paper has called me on it.

In the fall of 1987, Steppenwolf sponsored a month of performances of Burn This, a new play by Lanford Wilson that starred two of the theater’s founding members, John Malkovich and Joan Allen. The production had originated at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and was on its way to Broadway, and the stage manager was my sister, Mary Michele Miner (who later married Malkovich’s understudy). When the show hit Chicago she naturally wanted my wife and me to see it, so she arranged for free seats. Newton’s fourth law of motion holds that a body on a comp list tends to remain on a comp list indefinitely, and for the next 15 years or so there was not a single Steppenwolf show we ever saw that we had to pay for.

A good deal is never hard to rationalize. My faithful attendance wasn't doing Steppenwolf a lick of good (though one time when I was asked to serve on a panel discussing the theme of a play in the theater’s Garage series I said yes so swiftly and gratefully it should have made the theater suspicious). But because it wasn’t, because I reviewed no plays and almost never wrote anything remotely connected to Chicago theater, I told myself that no conflict of interest was involved. It was your basic pristine quid pro nihil situation.

Eventually, the free tickets stopped coming. I’m guessing someone new to the press office happened to glance at the comp list, noticed that a dozen or so names had been dead for years, and decided to prune the bush. What could I say or do? It was impossible to ask them to reconsider cutting me off from a benefit I had never been entitled to in the first place. Not that I wasn’t sad.

So it is with the website of the Lincoln Journal Star. In Lincoln, when the pay wall was put up the first of August, there was a fair amount of discussion that I’ve since read online. Some readers were philosophical but others were indignant, or questioned the fee structure, or shared techniques for getting around the wall. “The balance here is reasonable,” one blogger reflected. “The vast majority of LJS readers will respect the paywall, either paying to get behind it or dropping the site as a regular resource. A few hooligans will figure out what took me all of 30 seconds to discover and they’ll never have to pay.”

After various fits and starts, pay walls are going up around newspapers big and small across America, and it looks like this time they're up to stay. Here in Chicago, where I’ve listened to digital whiz kids lecture MSM old-timers on their sins and follies, the pay wall debate has been a tough one to sort out. No one wants to see decadent conglomerates brand and bridle exciting new technologies they did nothing to bring about. But the Journal Star pay wall puts the issue in relief. There’s a newsroom full of reporters in far-off Lincoln busting their butts. If I like the milk, why shouldn’t I help pay for the cow? They say information wants to be free, and maybe it does. But like everything else in the world that finds itself in a tight spot, information wants most of all to survive.

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