Letter from the Editor: When should readers have to pay for news articles?

Reporter Maxine Bernstein spent several days working on her compelling and tragic article about two teens at McDaniel High School who died after taking counterfeit prescription pills that police suspect were made with fentanyl. When we first published her article on OregonLive, it was available only to subscribers.

That’s part of our strategy to increase digital subscriptions: breaking news that is available in multiple places remains free; enterprise reporting that takes more time, expertise or analysis from our staff writers is reserved for paying subscribers.

In the days when we had only a print newspaper, there was never any question news came at a cost. Short of finding a paper left behind at a café, readers expected to pay the cover price for a newspaper.

When newspapers started websites, they mostly gave away the news for free. Readers got accustomed to that and now sometimes object when they can’t read an article without a subscription.

There’s another consideration: Should some news remain free as a public service? Fentanyl is a dangerous drug, and there is certainly a strong public interest in raising awareness of the peril.

That’s the reason we’ve typically kept some breaking news available to all — for example, wildfire coverage or COVID-19 case counts and deaths.

Luckily, we have great flexibility on OregonLive. After the question was raised internally, we took the Subscriber Exclusive key off the fentanyl article, making it available to all.

We sometimes do this in the reverse: publish an article free for some time, then put it behind the pay wall.

Print subscribers, of course, get all of our in-depth exclusive coverage in The Oregonian. Like most newspapers, we count on paying subscribers to support our high-quality local reporting. We thank our supporters, and we will continue to work on finding the best balance of free and paid work on OregonLive for our community.

Here are a few reader questions and comments that crossed my desk recently:

Q: I’m wondering who gave this headline the thumbs up “The rise of Anfernee Simons: ‘He was an absolute monster’; March 16). Black boys and men do not need this.

A: This headline was published in print editions inside the Sports section on the first part of an excellent three-part series by Trail Blazer beat writer Aaron Fentress. The headline appeared over a photograph of a young Simons posing for the camera with another Black child.

Reporters do not write print headlines. That happens later in the process after page design and copy editing. Reporters do, sometimes in consultation with editors, often write the headline that appears on OregonLive.

Print has space constraints: Headlines must summarize a complex story in just a few words. Online, headlines must do all that but also make it easy for search engines to find the story when readers are searching for news on the topic.

In this case, I thought the reader had a fair point. Although most readers would take the headline to mean a “monster” in the sports context, the print headline did not have the nuances of the online title, which read: The rise of Anfernee Simons, Part 1: From quiet and undersized to ‘an absolute monster’.

Comment: Here we are again. Men’s basketball is headlined as “Basketball,” but women’s is “Women’s Basketball” as if it isn’t as important.

Response: “We definitely try to always include ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ online,” Sports Editor Joel Odom tells me, “but I am sure we have had misses.” He adds: “Sometimes it is ‘men’s NCAA Tournament’ or ‘WNIT’ (Women’s National Invitation Tournament) in headlines and text, not always the exact phrase.”

Photos that accompany stories may also make it clear which games we’re reporting on. But we certainly don’t want to imply the “real” sport is basketball and then there’s this other one called women’s basketball.

Q: I’m trying to reach what used to be called the newspaper morgue to try to order multiple hard copies of the paper for March 18, 2002. I would need 10 copies.

A: The newspaper library indeed is referred to as the “morgue,” for reasons beyond me. When I came to the newspaper, we had a room with banks of revolving shelves. Inside those would be folders stuffed with news articles neatly clipped out and labeled and, in the photo library, archived photographs.

Now, our archives are available online. The contents of The Oregonian and The Oregon Journal have been digitized and are searchable from your computer.

You can search The Oregonian at oregonlive.com/archives by keywords or date. Browsing is free but there is a modest fee for downloading.

Readers who have a Multnomah County Library card, or who are members of a library with a reciprocal agreement, can access The Oregonian and Journal archives at multcolib.org for free.

Subscribers to our eNewspaper, the page-by-page replica of the daily newspaper, have access to a 30-day archive as part of their subscription. We no longer have a back copies department for purchase of older hard copies.

Thanks to all of our subscribers, whether The Oregonian, OregonLive or the eNewspaper. You make our vital work possible.