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Tallahassee Democrat to Charge Online Users


Tallahassee, FL – On July 1, the Tallahassee Democrat will become one of the first local papers in the U.S. to require online readers as well as hard-copy subscribers to pay for the service. As Margie Menzel reports, Democrat Executive Editor Bob Gabordi says it's a matter of survival.

Within 24 hours of the announcement, there were hundreds of comments on the Democrat's web site, most predicting doom for the paper and saying their own farewells. But Gabordi is adamant that change is necessary, and says the more civic-minded readers will agree.

BG: I think a lot of people in the industry have been thinking about this for a long time. We're part of Gannett, and Gannett has been looking at it as well. Really it comes down to: We're looking at our business model and saying, "It has worked for us about 100 of our 105 years. The last five years, maybe not so much." And saying, "What do we need to do differently?" The old model was that newspapers were a mass medium, and you went and got everyone in town to read you, there was very little competition, and so everyone had to advertise with you. That is less the case anymore, and will be less the case in the future. We said, "What do we need to do differently?" This is trying to do something differently.

The Democrat anticipated the reaction, which ran the gamut from regret to outrage.

MM: ...it might be the economy, and they're on a fixed income, or it might be criticism of the Democrat, of which there was a lot. Do you think those people are going to stay with you anyhow?

BG: I do. I think not everyone, but a lot of people are. Listen, everyone hates their hometown newspaper. But really, what we've asked them to do in this case is that - they weren't paying for it, and now we're asking them to pay for it. We think that those that are truly readers that have a stake in the community, that don't just come on there one time. I can tell you I've gotten a tremendous amount of encouragement from what we call the super-users, the people that are on there all the time.

MM: One repeated criticism I saw on the blog was that the quality of the reading and writing has declined. We've certainly seen staff cut-backs that eliminated some of the - well, every paper has - that eliminated some of the editing along the way. Do you agree with folks who say there's been a decline in quality?

BG: Well, of course there's been a decline. Whenever you have to keep cutting and keep cutting because the business model isn't supporting the level of journalism that you want to do, we've had to cut staff. So has every other newspaper in America - it's making my point for me in saying that. Take a look at any newspaper you want, or take a look at how many no longer exist. If we don't find a business model that works, there'll be a continued decline, and there'll be a continued decline in the number of media outlets that are available. That's just the reality. It takes money to produce quality journalism, and if we don't find a business model that works, newspapers across the country will go away. It's that simple.

Gabordi says many media outlets have experimented with charging for web content, and they'll be watching.