Web newspaper registration stirs debate
Monday, June 14, 2004 Posted: 7:22 PM EDT (2322 GMT)
Pennsylvania (AP) -- Imagine if a trip to the corner newsstand required
handing over your name, address, age, and income to the cashier before
you could pick up the daily newspaper.
That's close to the
experience of many online readers, who must complete registration forms
with various kinds of personal data before seeing their virtual
The requirement has irked some readers and privacy
advocates, led to the creation of Web sites to foil the system, and
could be failing to provide the solid demographic information that the
system was intended to capture.
Despite these concerns, a growing
number of newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer in March and
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April -- have moved to online
registration in the past year.
Industry representatives argue
that because their Web readers get the same content as the
paper-and-ink edition without paying for it, it's fair to ask them for
personal information in exchange for access. They also say that
collecting such data is becoming essential as the news business evolves.
of the things newspapers are trying to do is get a grasp on who's using
their Web site and how much, whether they're people who already
subscribe (to the print edition), people who live outside the area,"
said Scott Bosley, executive director of the American Society of
"The other thing is that down the road,
newspapers are trying to figure out when and where they can charge," he
said. "Ultimately, they want to see what people will pay for news. I
don't think anybody's comfortable enough to say they know the answer
The industry has not tracked the shift in detail, but news
organizations and marketing groups say an increasing number of
newspapers have begun requiring online registration, particularly in
the last 12 months or so.
Some forms require the most basic
information, like gender and year of birth. Others ask for what amounts
to a personal profile that can include name, birth date, job title,
income range, e-mail and home addresses, home phone numbers, and
interests and hobbies.
The data can then be used to help
publications better know their online readers, and make themselves more
attractive to advertisers.
However, some privacy groups are
crying foul. Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information
Center in Washington, D.C. says sites will be pushing for even more
invasive disclosures as demographic data becomes muddied by peeved
users who practice "self-defense" by registering themselves as
110-year-old surgeons from Bulgaria named Mickey Mouse.
marketing is becoming less effective, so the marketers are pushing for
more invasive registrations," he said. "They know specifically what
articles I'm reading, they know all about me, and I know very little
about them. It's a complete imbalance of power."
When The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution implemented online registration on April 12, a
flurry of e-mails and calls from angry readers followed, ombudsman Mike
"The prevailing story line on the complaints was that
people thought it was unbecoming of a newspaper to ask for (personal)
information and that it came as a shock because we provided (online
content) for free for so long," King said.
He said travel Web
sites, cell phone services, catalogs and other online entities
typically ask for more probing information than newspapers do.
Philadelphia Inquirer started online registration in March, asking
readers for e-mail, home address, gender and birth date. About 10
percent to 15 percent of the 300,000 registrations to date have bad
e-mail addresses, said Fred Mann, general manager of Philly.com.
said in an e-mail that the complaints generally fell into three
categories: People who had technical problems, those who objected to
giving out personal information, and those who "railed that we were
pigs and were 'ruining the Internet!"'
"We helped the first group
through it. We reassured most all of the second group with a strong
many of them did not register with us," he said.
one Web site created to allow users access sites without registering.
The site provides "communal" logins and passwords for sites including
registration-required sites like those for The New York Times, The
Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times and
now The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
BugMeNot's home page states
that more than 3,000 Web sites have been "liberated" since its
inception in November. The site calls compulsory registrations
intrusive, irritating, spam-promoting, and counter to the Internet's
King said that as newspapers adapt to an online
world, continually updating stories in real time on their Web sites, it
will become more costly to do business and new revenue sources must be
"Our view is that we need help from you: We've got to pay
for what we do, we've got to convince advertisers into looking at us
and tell them that these are the demographics we now know about our
readers," he said. "The old standard -- advertising geared to people
who live in the areas we cover -- doesn't work anymore."
haven't reported large amounts of falsified data. However, forced
registration sites as a whole have a 10 percent to 20 percent
"bounce-back rate" -- e-mails sent to abandoned, falsified or otherwise
nonworking addresses, said analyst Eric Peterson of JupiterResearch, in
"You'll always lose people when you put up a
barrier for them to get information," he said. "We'll eventually see
companies get smarter about what they can ask and how to ask, or see
their customers go elsewhere."
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