Should newspapers charge for access to their archives?

by Jason Preston on May 19, 2008

About a week ago my sister, who admirably reads all my drivel without complaint, sent me an e-mail about newspaper archives:

In looking for sources for my history paper, I was very annoyed to find out that I would have to pay along the lines of $2.95 or pay for a whole subscription in order to see archived articles of specific newspapers.

The Seattle Times and the New York Times were both free, but the LA Times and many other ones that a google news search turned up were not. What’s up with having to pay for the archives?

She’s got a kind of point: All the current stuff is free. Why do I have to pay for the old stuff? It’s not like it costs you anything to provide it.

But I think that newspapers should be taking every opportunity they have to develop habits and expectations that expand the concept of a subscription. A few days ago I wrote about what makes up a newspaper subscription, and I really think that subscriptions need to transcend the old medium.

Go read my post for a better explanation.

I bet that the Los Angeles Times doesn’t sell a lot of passes to its archives. If they opened up their full vault—that’s years and years of keyword-rich content—they’d get a significant boost in their ad revenue, especially if they start back-filling their inventory with AdSense (or is Google the future competition?)

But more important than getting that search revenue bump, I think, is cultivating a set of services and privileges offered only to subscribers.

As advertisers are given more and more channels for their product, and newspapers continue to lose their ability to charge premium prices for exposure that can’t be found elsewhere, it will become important to cultivate, in fact to increase, the amount of revenue that newspapers draw from subscribers.

So I think that the LA Times is actually making the right choice here for the long term. They just need to improve their offering. Maybe it should be $4.99 a month for archives, text message alerts, and private forums.