Sunday, April 11, 2021
April 11, 2021

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From the Newsroom: Online content proves its value

By , Columbian Editor

If you follow The Columbian online, you know that we ask our frequent online readers to help support our journalism by buying a subscription.

We’ve had that policy for several years. Frankly, we and other local newspapers once had hoped that online advertising would be so robust that we could give away our journalism and still make enough money to cover our costs. But that hasn’t happened. So after a few freebies, we ask people to pay.

We’ve always had two unwritten exceptions to this policy. We’ll make our content free if it is about a significant public emergency. And we also make our content free if we can’t get our print edition delivered to our subscribers.

Both of those scenarios have come into play in the last month.

The “significant public emergency” happened first. When we came up with these exceptions, I always thought of a big earthquake. When the Big One hits, the public is going to need a lot of reliable information, fast, and The Columbian will be great way to get that information out.

But this emergency began with a fever, sore throat and a rash: the measles. The disease is highly contagious among unvaccinated people, so we felt it was our civic duty to let everyone know about the epidemic, where people might have been exposed, and what to do. So we opened up our first stories on this topic to everyone. If we can help limit the spread of a potentially serious infectious disease, we should do it.

The second exception was triggered by the nasty weather. I live in a subdivision on a tiny little hill, and my carrier got my newspaper on my doorstep every morning. But it’s amazing how many Columbian print subscribers live on a mountain, in a canyon, down a dark narrow road, etc. When the region is covered in snow and ice, we can’t always get to these homes. Our circulation management team tells carriers not to risk an accident but to “stack the route” and deliver the newspapers as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Of course, subscribers want their news, particularly if it’s snowing. So beginning Feb. 9, we temporarily made all of our online content free. Because it’s hard to differentiate between print subscribers and nonsubscribers, our site and e-edition were free to all comers. It wasn’t just the storm-related coverage: Everything was available, from Trail Blazers game stories to back issues of Lou Brancaccio’s Press Talk column.

We still got quite a few angry phone calls. But we also heard from folks who were glad we weren’t asking our carriers, many of whom are women or older adults, to drive down potentially hazardous roads in a storm in the middle of the night.

So did more people check us out online while content was free? Ben Campbell, our circulation director, pulled together some numbers. We got significantly more page views, particularly on Saturday, when snow was still in the forecast. The views of our e-edition — the digital replica of our printed paper — were way up. So I think our strategy to keep the subscribers informed worked — and some nonsubscribers got an unexpected free trial.

If you’re a print subscriber, of course, you already are entitled to get these online products at no extra charge, along with unlimited access to content via our smartphone app (download it from your phone’s app store). We just recently started including these products with print subscriptions, and we know many subscribers haven’t signed up yet. So Ben decided to try to limit frustration and make the news available with one click.

By the way, if you are a print subscriber and haven’t signed up, visit for access to our website and app. For the digital edition, sign up at If you have trouble registering for any of these products, call us at 360-694-2312 or email

That way, you’ll always be in the know.


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