Paper to wires to wireless

Way back in the beginning of newspapers on the internet, my children, lots of companies thought they’d make their money as ISPs. It was the clearest demonstration that they thought of themselves as distribution companies rather than trust companies. One of the biggest efforts at starting a newspaper ISP was Infinet, which was offered by lots of papers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, but not by the papers I worked with. I argued against it. There was no way that papers could compete at scale with giants like AOL. And I said that the economics would be a killer because of subscriber acquisition costs, churn, and big investments in both technology and customer service. This, I argued — successfully — is not what a newspaper is about. For once, I was right. Newspaper ISPs died, one by one. Note the irony that Philadelphia will now be one of the first cities to offer free and ad-supported municipal wireless across the town.

Now Paid Content reports that The Pilot in North Carolina is going to offer wi-fi access from its headquarters and then in public places across its market. So a newspaper is in the distribution business again. But there’s a difference: This time, it’s not an effort to get the online version of circulation revenue from consumers. This will be free.

Is it smart? Dunno yet. On the one hand, a newspaper would be damned wise to find ways to provide extra service to local users: ‘Get my free wi-fi and get my local content and take my ads.’ On the other hand, it’s just another distribution play in a world that will value distribution less and less and newspapers have tried this before. What do you think?