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Carroll: Answer, and you shall receive

Imagine you’re having dinner at an Aspen restaurant, and the waiter brings you your bill. But you don’t have to pay for the $150 meal you and your better half enjoyed. Instead, the waiter just asks you to answer a simple question.

Perhaps the question asked of you seems a bit silly, trivial or irrelevant. After all, it has nothing to do with the meal you just ate, but it’s an insignificant price to pay for a free dinner, so why not?

This scenario doesn’t seem plausible because it’s not. Restaurants don’t give away their food or drinks, Aspen Skiing Co. doesn’t give away lift tickets, and clothing retailers don’t give away clothes. Attorneys don’t offer free services, and neither do real estate agents or CPAs. Belly Up doesn’t give out free tickets to its concerts, nor does the Wheeler Opera House.

Even so, it’s understandable when readers might have choked on their paid-for Cheerios last week when they visited The Aspen Times website for their morning dose of news only to see a survey question break up their routine. Before they could go any deeper into the article they clicked on, they were asked a random question that, in many instances, had no bearing on their everyday lives.

Most of us live on routines and schedules, and when it’s disrupted, it’s upsetting. Even a mundane task like answering a survey question can be regarded as a monkey wrench in the day’s activities.

But these questions are something The Aspen Times is doing in order to continue to provide its content for free to our readers. The questions are part of a market-research tool, created and delivered by Google, called “Google Consumer Surveys.” Each time a reader answers the questions, we collect a small fee from Google.

There are no more than two survey questions per 24-hour session on The Aspen Times website, provided you are using the same browser from the same computer. Or, if you don’t want to reply to the questions — your answers are anonymous and none of your personal data is collected — you can always tweet a story, “like” it on Facebook or share it on Google+.

Yes, it’s not the way you might want to spend your morning, but for about 10 seconds at the most, it beats paying for what you’re reading.

The newspaper and publishing business has gone through the grinder over the past decade or so. Newspapers don’t have the reporting muscle they once had, and as of 2012, newsrooms had slashed their staffs by 30 percent since 2000, according to a study done by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Colorado residents saw the presses stop for good at the Rocky Mountain News in 2009, and newspaper chains filing for bankruptcy since 2008 include the Tribune Co. and Journal Register Co., among others.

Even Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and the former managing editor of CNN, strongly argued in a February 2009 cover story for Time magazine, of which he was once editor, that newspapers should charge readers a “micro payment” for each article they read. In fact, as I looked up the article to refresh my memory, I was asked to subscribe to Time in order to read the article. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen when you look for an older article on The Aspen Times’ website.

Despite the doomsday news about the newspaper business, the industry forges on, but it must make some concessions along the way and also be creative with surveys like the one we’re using through Google.

We’re not alone. Google also has or has had survey partnerships with the L.A. Times, the New York Daily News, Bloomberg and McClatchy properties, which, like other publications, are trying to find new funding options rather than charging readers for content or laying off journalists.

Aspen readers are fortunate to have two newspapers going head-to-head on a daily basis. Not only that, but both are free. Our newspaper racks don’t have coin slots, and our website doesn’t have a paywall.

We’re free because we’re in a fertile advertising market and our sales staff is on the ground each day drumming up new revenue. We’re free because we have a strong classified section that’s robust with wanted, for-sale and employment ads, among others.

And we want to remain free. One way to do that is by seeking partnerships with other companies like Google.

These survey questions will last for roughly the next three to six months, and you can always click our e-edition, which does not require readers to answer any questions.

Your feedback about this is appreciated, but we hope you’ll agree that five to 10 seconds of your day, for the next three months, beats paying cash for local news, information and content on The Aspen Times website.

Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at rcarroll@aspentimes.com.


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