Reluctant Townie: My employer says: Pay me, maybe?

Last week, The News-Gazette announced that it will begin charging a monthly fee to view articles on its website. As of June 24, Web users will be allowed eight articles per month before they are asked to purchase an online subscription.

This paywall comes in the wake of a substantial redesign of the website and the desperate pleas of staff wishing to maintain a DiGiorno's lifestyle in an increasingly Red Baron landscape. (Notice the best we can hope for is not delivery, it's DiGiornos. Journalists are nothing if not realists.)

The reaction from the community has been mixed: two parts indignation, one part indifference, with a splash of "I spend more a month on dry-cleaning my socks."

On one hand, the $7.99 subscription fee has been perceived as an annoying roundhouse kick to the head. It was unexpected, and some people feel like it was a cheap shot โ€” although a well-executed cheap shot, insofar as a roundhouse kick is not an easy maneuver to pull off, despite what every episode of "Walker, Texas Ranger" would lead you to believe.

The bottom line is that people generally dislike being asked to pay for something they used to get for free. If you don't believe me, ask John Travolta's wig dealer.

But on the other hand, $7.99 is less money than the monthly print subscription fee I was collecting from my friends and neighbors as a paper boy in the early 1990s. So I guess you have to put things into historical perspective.

It's inconvenient, but it's not exactly highway robbery. More like a highway tollbooth that doesn't take I-Pass.

Anyway, all of this is to say: If you have found yourself reading this week's column online โ€” I sincerely apologize because that means you just burned through one of your eight free articles for the month. (It should be noted the previous statement is contingent upon The News-Gazette classifying my column as a "premium article.")

As much as I would like to believe my musings are one of the top eight things you need to know about your world each and every month, I am a realist. You've got Letters from Birdland to read. Sports scores to know. Casserole recipes to try.

Up until this century, paying for the news was a simple fact of life. But then again, so were beepers. And Blockbuster. And the career of Freddie Prinze Jr.

However it ends up being received by the public, the restructuring of services at The News-Gazette and IlliniHQ.com (many tiers of pricing/access exist above and below the $7.99 price point) wasn't the only change the company considered.

In a series of leaked emails forwarded to me by exiled whistle-blower Edward Snowden, I learned the details behind several of The News-Gazette's discarded ideas.

1. BUY A SPORTS TEAM. In this modern day and age, media companies need to diversify their revenue streams. One trendy way to do this is to purchase a sports team. In theory, this is a great idea for increased revenue: People like sports games and spend a lot of their monies on them. As a media company, you can sell ad space in your stadium and collect a healthy profit from the televised rights.

Unfortunately, The News-Gazette could not afford the $3.6 million in cash needed to purchase the Champaign Park District peewee team the Flying Ninja Raptors.

2. CELEBRITY CARWASH. Fundraisers are a great way to connect with the community directly. Thusly, The N-G considered throwing a celebrity carwash. Some of the sought-after celebrities included Andy Griffith, Angela Lansbury and Gordon Lightfoot. Plans were scrapped after Griffith passed away last year, despite a seal of approval from the ghost of Don Knotts.

3. RELUCTANT TOWNIE WEBCAM. Another idea that was briefly considered was a webcast version of my column, wherein I would read my essays wearing however many articles of clothing the readers of The News-Gazette could afford to cover me with. ($2.99 for the first sock, $0.99 for every article of clothing thereafter.)

Despite The News-Gazette pulling the plug on this project, I plan to go forward with my own version of "The Reluctant Townie LIVE! (and Hopefully Not Naked) Show" on the University of Illinois Quadrangle this summer. Watch for me. And bring plenty of singles โ€” I don't make change.

4. AN ALTERNATE NEWSPAPER. The News-Gazette also briefly considered publishing a second newspaper that would consist of news culled directly from an alternate reality where Barack Obama lost the 2008 election to John McCain, concealed carry was a way of life and Chief Illiniwek was not only still the Illini mascot, but also the president of Champaign-Urbana.

5. MOUSE PADS. There is a warehouse in Rantoul full of mouse pads with my mug shot on them. They make excellent dartboards, and all of the proceeds benefit the frozen pizza selection in The News-Gazette staff room.

Ryan Jackson hopes his editors have a sense of humor this week and he can be reached at therelucatanttownie@hotmail.com.

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Marti Wilkinson wrote on July 01, 2013 at 11:07 pm

As a former newspaper carrier myself, I can respect the argument you are trying to make in regards to the costs of a print subscription v. online access. However, I think it was a bad business decision on the part of the News-Gazette, and I don't think it will really help them from a business standpoint. 

I wonder why the News-Gazette didn't simply consider having readers watch an advertisement, in exchange for reading an article. Some online periodicals do this, and it seems to be a win-win situation for everyone concerned. The periodical gets to earn money from advertising, the reader gets to read the article for free, and the business gets a chance to target a product to an audience that might not be reached in other ways. 

Simply put, the News-Gazette has local competition from broadcast television, radio, and cable. There are people who don't read the newspaper, but who get exposed to local commercials by watching HGTV and CNN if they subscribe to Comcast. Then you have people who bypass that with satellite subscriptions, or who just choose to find alternative means for entertainment. I myself went without cable/satellite for several months, and used a roku box to downstream Netflix.

So if the News-Gazette went with an advertisement model, it would give local businesses an opportunity to target their products to an audience that may not be reached through other means, and it will generate additional revenue for the paper.