Since starting college three years ago, Katherine Toy has developed a new habit: reading a daily newspaper. But the paper that has become her regular companion on the Boston subway isn't a traditional daily. For one, the Boston Metro doesn't have the wingspan of a broadsheet. Its stories, mostly wire copy, follow the Sgt. Joe Friday School of Journalism ("just the facts, ma'am") by providing succinct summaries of the news. Most significant, the tabloid is free, given away at the city's "T" stations.
"There are Metro men everywhere passing out newspapers," says the ski-jacketed Ms. Toy, huddled inside a subway car. "You don't even have to look for it - they find me."
That's no coincidence. The student represents a prize demographic for newspapers: the 18- to 30-year-old set. This group is also least likely to pay for news, accustomed to getting timely information for free from the Internet or TV. The Metro, an international franchise that has also taken root in Philadelphia and New York, has discovered that it can reach this age group with a fresh-format freebie.
Older newspapers, faced with declining circulation, are now jumping into the fray. The New York Times Co., which owns The Boston Globe, recently declared its intention to buy a 49 percent stake in the Boston Metro. Several metropolitan dailies, including The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, have already created their own spin-off freebies.
Last week, the Knight Ridder newspaper corporation announced that it, too, may launch a free daily. In each instance, the companies hope to nurture a future demand for their flagship publications by getting the iPod generation accustomed to a newspaper.
Whether or not that strategy pays off, the rising expectation that news should be free has implications for both the industry and a democracy that depends on it for information. On the one hand, some observers believe that the proliferation of free newspapers and free news sites on the Internet means a larger number of voices that cater to niche audiences. But others worry that websites and newspapers supported purely by advertisers may not be able to sustain a vast network of professional news gatherers. Whatever its perils and promises, the march toward free news seems unstoppable, some analysts say.
"It's completely anachronistic that daily newspapers ... charge money," says Matt Welch, media commentator for Reason magazine. "It's really a pittance in terms of overall revenue. It's a signal to the marketplace - to advertisers especially, but also to some readers - that 'we're serious, we're not some throwaway paper.'"
At least one entrepreneur believes that he can take on a venerable paper by producing a quality paper that is supported by advertising dollars alone. On Tuesday, billionaire Philip Anschutz launched The Washington Examiner, a free tabloid that is competing directly with The Washington Post for middle- and upper-income readers. In an attempt to create a serious journalistic enterprise, Mr. Anschutz has staffed the paper with experienced journalists, including 16 local reporters. The Examiner's distribution system is also unusual: Where most freebies are given away on subways and street corners, The Examiner's strategy focuses on home delivery to 260,000 doorsteps and mailboxes across the greater Washington, D.C., area. If the endeavor is successful, Anschutz stands poised to replicate the business model in 68 other cities.
For now, the nation's largest newspapers are struggling to keep up with another competitor, the Internet. Many papers now have a larger audience for their online content than their print product. Not surprisingly, media companies are debating whether they should charge readers for access their websites.
"The real problem with Internet media is that it's still not pulling in enough revenue of any kind in order to support the kind of reporting that you need to produce really high-quality journalism," says Dan Kennedy, media critic for The Boston Phoenix, a free weekly newspaper.
A few critics suggest that if newspapers are to monetize their online content, they need to add value to it.
One means of doing so would be to allow online articles to include commentary or provide a forum for others to offer their own thoughts, a format that has spurred the popularity of blogs.
Indeed, in an increasingly crowded media marketplace - both online and offline - new competitors may try to differentiate themselves by providing a partisan voice, says Mr. Welch. Some upstart newspapers may even cast off the practice of impartial, or "objective," journalism in an attempt to corner an underserved political market.
"A publication without a point of view isn't worth reading," avers John Battelle, a cofounder of Wired magazine and columnist at BoingBoing. "At the end of the day, this fabled mythology of objectivism has hampered newspapering."
Mr. Battelle says a newspaper can be a more effective community leader if it is able to express an opinion. Online newspapers can cater to a community of shared interest that isn't geographically bound.
But that prospect concerns some observers who wonder if newspapers will become more red and blue than black and white.
"There may not be any such thing as a mass audience anymore," laments Kennedy. "If everything is serving smaller, niche audiences, the business urge is to pander to them."
But Welch, for one, isn't worried. He believes that the dailies will mostly adhere to the ingrained tenet of objective journalism. The value of partisan rivals, he says, is that they provide a competition of viewpoints.
"You'll have people say, 'what's going to happen to our democracy with the whole democratization of media?'" says Welch. "Hmmm. Let's see if we can spot the contradiction."