Ever since newspapers entered the online world, readers were incredulous: "I can't believe you guys give your content away for free," most said. The strategy at the time was to draw readers to the site for free, and support it with advertising. Internet sites are great tools for showing advertisers exactly how may people look at their ad, because it keeps track of that.

Starting Monday, The Montana Standard, along with its sister newspapers in Montana and Wyoming, will begin a metered fee system for those reading our content online. It's a first in the state and a first for our newspaper chain, Lee Enterprises.

Some of our webpages will remain free, while others will allow users to see 15 free premium pages per month. If you want to see more than 15 pages a month, you'll be asked to buy a monthly or yearly subscription. (You can do this all online as well; and you get a username and password to get access to the paid pages).

The Billings Gazette, Casper Star Tribune, Helena Independent Record, Missoulian and Ravalli Republic will all be on a readership meter as of Monday.

The meter works this way: as you approach your free, 15-page limit, a warning will pop up online notifying you that you are close to the limit. Once you hit 15-pages, the screen will give you a message asking you to pay for more content. The meter resets after one month.

This is not something new for the newspaper/online industry. The New York Times recently launched a successful metered site and more than 50 other newspapers are following that business model.

We will not be charging to view the following content online: The front page, classifieds, all advertisements and advertising promotions, (such as Today's Deal), special sections, auctions, community calendar or customer service pages. There will be no charge for these pages, regardless of the number of times viewed.

Webpages that will be charging for viewership - after 15 free views per month - are: Local, state, national and world news pages; local and regional sports; news accessed by Facebook and Twitter; opinion pages; obituaries; entertainment (except AP wire); health, outdoors, weddings, anniversaries; births, lottery; weather; archives; comments; photo galleries and videos.

Of course this is a work in progress. We may be adjusting the levels of service up or down depending on reader response.

The key to keep in mind is that our local content is generated by local reporters, photographers, editors and other staff. Their hard work is certainly worth something to our readers, as evidenced by our long-time newspaper subscribers. So it's time to start charging for our work online. It's a testament to the value of our staff.

Or, you can look at it another way. Newspapers have struggled with a workable business model when it comes to the Internet where everything was at once free. It has hurt newspapers' bottom line and forced staff layoffs. This way, local papers can show a return on their investment with the Internet as well as the print version.

As many will recall, the advent of cable TV in the late 1970s promised "commercial-free" viewing. Today, nearly every premium channel has a wealth of advertising, even though viewers are paying hefty fees. Or, for example, when one goes to the movies, one expects to see films free of advertising. Today, there are nearly 20 minutes of ads bombarding customers, even though they paid to see a film.

The fees we will be charging are very reasonable. A monthly online subscription is $4.99; if your have a print subscription it is only $1.99 per month. An annual online subscription is $49.99 per year; or if you have a print subscription, it is only $19.99

This prices we believe are modest; but will help us continue to bring our readers the best in local news, sports and advertising both in the newspaper and online. We would love to hear from you as this evolves. Feel free to the call the editor at 496-5513 or email us at editor@mtstandard.com.


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