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Local policymakers concerned over local newspapers' paywalls

BY DEREK KELLISON | FEBRUARY 24, 2012 6:30 AM

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Local officials have mixed reaction to a new plan that will require readers to pay for online access to two Iowa-based newspapers.

Gannett — which owns the Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Des Moines Register — announced Wednesday that it would move online editions of its community newspapers behind a pay wall, charging readers to access the websites. Company officials say the plan would add $100 million in publishing earnings beginning in 2013.

In Iowa City, the Press-Citizen is the paper of record, so local governments are required to publish certain information there. However, leaders say the pay wall won't affect that function.

Iowa City City Councilor Terry Dickens said he was confident citizens could still easily access public documents without the online edition. Those records are still available on city and county websites, as well as city handouts such as maintenance bills, he said.

"We can't control what newspapers do," he said. "We just post the documents we're required to."

However, Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig criticized the pay-wall move.

"I'm really sorry to hear that," she said. "This sort of thing is going to drive the readership away."

Rettig suggested instead that the newspapers add more online advertising to improve their profits, similar to popular free social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Rettig also said smaller local news operations could pick up the slack when corporate-owned organizations such as the Press-Citizen and Register move behind pay walls.

"There's a future for independently owned, locally owned papers," she said.

University of Iowa assistant journalism Professor Melissa Tully said she agreed.

"People want the local news from the local news source," she said.

Though Tully said she predicted a move to pay walls, she said newspapers need to be flexible about online options since some pay wall models have been received poorly. Other sites' news that will remain free could also take up hosting free public documents, she said.

Rettig said she believed a hybrid of online and print newspapers would be a more successful approach.

"I want an old-school paper, and I want that online," she said.


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