Pat Purcell has taken the chains off his columnists, so we can again read them for free on the Herald's Web site.
It's about damn time. This is a great move by the Herald, and it's great news for Boston in general.
What we had before were these Herald columnists, putatively the voices of working class Boston, locked up in a caste system style Web site where you had to pay more for their wit and wisdom. Excuse me? No one really discussed these guys anymore. When you would hear the talk on the radio (Oddly dominated in our market by Herald people), you couldn't follow up by going to the Herald's Web site and reading the column. That's bunk.
Here's the thing: Columnists grow in value as they grow in influence. The more people talk about a columnist and her work, the more readers that columnists gets. So walling them off behind a subscription ransom is completely counter intuitive. You effectively separate the columnist from any chance at hooking new readers. These writers are the bait for the newspaper. You give them away for free to draw eyes. And dollars.
You want a better example? Look at TimesSelect. Who really talks about Maureen Dowd anymore? Paul Krugman? No one online, at least. These columnists used to dominate the "most requested" page on nytimes.com. Look now, as of Thursday morning, there's one Times select piece in the top 25 most e-mailed stories. There are none on the "most blogged" list.
Newspaper still view the net as a threat, because they can't figure out how to make money off the thing. But that's just a lack of imagination. Newspapers must find a way to make the Internet work for them, because it's so clearly their future. Stop stop whining about Craigslist and do something about it. Localized vertical searches are a good start, but Google will catch up. Keep innovating. And keep the columnists out in the open!
*Full disclosure: I used to work for Community Newspaper Company when it was owned by Purcell.