Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

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A story first posted on our website on Tuesday excited a massive amount of comment, which surprised me given that the subject was not a traditional one to get blood boiling, like political scandal or hockey.

It was on the trend by newspapers to charge for online content.

The most vitriolic commenters screamed that they would never pay for news on the web and would eliminate from their digital reading any paper that charged for content.

I wonder if they thought about that threat very much. After all, that is exactly what papers that charge are after -- getting rid of readers who do not pay.

Here at FP Newspapers, we have had paid content for some time.

Anyone who wants to read outside Canada must pay. Likewise we charge for our archives, which contain more than a century of Winnipeg and Manitoba history. As well, the FP-owned Brandon Sun's website requires a subscription.

We are monitoring what other papers are doing closely to determine if we should put further limits on any of our sites.

Other papers are going much further. Earlier this month, the Winnipeg Sun became the first local paper in the city to start charging for current news content.

Other examples are in the story I mentioned, which was still the most-read national story on our site as of Wednesday morning.

At the Winnipeg Free Press, we have a strong audience for our digital content. There are about a million page views daily when traffic to all of our sites and mobile applications is combined.

We have already done a number of things online to drive revenue from sources other than display advertising. There is paid content on WFPtv, and sites such as Autos and Homes are aimed at providing businesses with premium advertising spots in front of audiences who are specifically interested in those subjects. We have also developed a Digital Bureau that provides web services to a growing clientele.

We will continue to develop our sites, but the digital world changes so quickly that it is hard to predict where we will be a year from now.

Our goal is to provide the most comprehensive sites for news and information about Winnipeg and Manitoba. Whatever we do will be in support of this. No one in a head office in another city is telling us what is best for Winnipeg.

When it comes to web news, that is an important distinction.

Some commenters correctly pointed out that there is a lot of news available for free on the web. One said "news is ubiquitous," as if it surrounded us all like air.

That is not quite true -- news does come from somewhere, and in most cases the original generation of news content is expensive, done by paid journalists working for traditional media organizations.

But a lot of it is available online, circulated and recirculated, compiled and aggregated, spliced, diced, shared, tweeted and retweeted.

Unfortunately, this has led to a lot of original journalism work being undervalued. Some commenters made disparaging remarks about wire stories as if they were inferior journalism. One refused to pay for "AP garbage."

Wire services spend a lot of money to provide reliable coverage of events that a paper like the Free Press could never cover on its own. The Canadian Press employs some of the country's best journalists. The Associated Press is a respected and comprehensive reporter of international news. (And I say this not just because I was a wire service reporter for 10 years.)

It is true that wire stories are not the most valuable thing on the Free Press sites. But it is because they are available elsewhere, not because they are inferior. They are available on our sites as part of a fully rounded report about what is happening in Canada and the world.

They are not the reason people come to our sites.

One commenter hit the nail on the head by indicating a willingness to pay for local news, saying "national and international news can always be found online for free. but who's gonna cover city hall, parks and rec, local stories?"

We take pride at the Free Press in continuing to provide coverage of such stories. We are the only news outlet in Winnipeg any longer with reporters permanently assigned to all major public bodies -- City Hall, the Manitoba Legislature, the Law Courts and the police station.

You can disagree with something written by Bartley Kives or Dan Lett, but at least you know they are on the job, paying attention to important parts of our democracy that might otherwise go without scrutiny.

We will continue to adjust as we make our way in the digital world, but we will not take our eye off our journalistic mission.

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

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