Access denied: Daily Herald to begin charging online toll

Although he’s best known as the straight-shooting chief investigative reporter for ABC 7, Chuck Goudie often does his most insightful and provocative work as a free-lance columnist for the suburban Daily Herald. In print and online for more than 10 years, he’s been serving up sharp commentary on everything from politics and religion to media and pop culture.

But after next week, Goudie’s fans will have to pay for the privilege of reading his column — along with everything else on the Daily Herald’s web site. As of September 7, the newspaper will become the first in the Chicago area to charge for its online product. Web-only access will cost $19.99 a month. Print subscribers will be charged $1 a week for digital access.

In the wake of Tuesday’s announcement, Goudie was still sorting out what it will mean for his readers — and for his future as a columnist.

“Over the years I have heard from people around the world who have read my Monday column on the Internet and wanted to respond,” he told me. “There have also been countless investigative leads that web site readers have sent to me after accessing certain columns. The links to some columns have also been widely circulated via Facebook and Twitter. That kind of reach, from a suburban-based Chicago newspaper, has been a driving force in writing the column for more than 10 years.”

Despite Goudie’s misgivings and those of a few Daily Herald staffers I contacted, initial reaction to the paywall plan has been “overwhelmingly positive,” according to publisher Doug Ray, chairman and CEO of parent company Paddock Publications.

“As you can imagine, there were many questions from reporters and editors at meetings held yesterday in Arlington Heights and in our offices around the suburbs,” Ray told me. “But our journalists understand that their work has value and that the days of free content are over. And I believe they understand why it is necessary.”

Ray shared a note he received from one longtime editor, who wrote: “May I say how excited I am about the company’s paid content plan. It is also a little terrifying, but I’m absolutely thrilled that we’re setting the trend and perhaps inviting (daring?) the rest of the industry to follow us, instead of waiting for someone else to make a move. I honestly feel invigorated and will do my best to ensure the staff is the same when the announcement is made.  I’ll bet they won’t need a lot of prodding.”

In a letter to readers, Ray said the payment structure “will enable us to continue to provide the kind of quality local news and the journalism expected from the Daily Herald,” adding: “Newspapers all over the country are realizing that they cannot rely solely on the income from advertisers to create and sustain the kind of journalism the community deserves, as new media have taken an increasingly larger slice of the available marketing dollars.”

Print subscribers who don’t wish to pay the extra dollar a week for online access can simply opt out, Ray said. Online readers, he acknowledged, already are complaining loudly about the change.

“Those who had been receiving free access don’t like the fact that they will now be required to pay and are railing about it. We have made no attempt to minimize their comments, nor would we. Of course, they have been getting free of charge much of what our subscribers have been paying for — the journalism — and they won’t any longer.”

The biggest unknown may be how advertisers respond. That’s something “we will not know until the dust settles,” Ray said, “but we believe the paid content model will command higher rates. We have developed two new advertising positions on our home page to accommodate additional advertising interest and to ensure we have inventory to meet customers’ needs.”

First Steve Dahl starts charging listeners for a podcast they once got for free. Now the Daily Herald is billing readers for access to content on its web site. Any guesses what’s next?

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)