One of the most frequently asked questions I hear is: "What's the feasibility of charging for our web site?"

Publishers are concerned that their print circulation is in a steady decline. They wonder if posting news and other content to a free web site is contributing to the print decline.

Many publishers have heard anecdotal comments from readers - especially out-of-state readers - that they aren't subscribing to the print product any more because they get the information they want off the Internet edition.

So, the question is posed over and over: Should we limit access to our web site to current print subscribers or those who are willing to subscribe to an online edition?

There are two parts to the answer.

First, you can have a subscriber-only web site. That is to say the technology exists to restrict access to your online edition.

Furthermore, newspapers using TownNews.com technology can slice and dice their sites. The classifieds can be free to all comers, while the news, sports, obits, features, etc., can be limited to subscribers.

The second question is more important: Should a newspaper restrict access to its content?

There are serious consequences to restricting access to your web site.

Rusty Coats, director of New Media, for MORI Research, says a paid site likely will drive away younger and more affluent users.

"From data we gathered for the NAA (Newspaper Association of America) with site surveys on free and paid sites, we found that paid-site users look identical to print subscribers," Coats said. "The younger and more affluent users that free sites attract (as well as the out-of town users) largely disappear from paid sites.

"Another way of putting it is that a paid newspaper site's demographics do not extend the reach of a printed newspaper, but rather duplicates its existing reach."

Coats adds that paid site users - compared to free site users - are older, less affluent, less educated, more local, more likely to be at home than at-work users, use the newspaper site less frequently, are less likely to recommend the site to others, and are more likely to depend on printed newspapers for advertising.

By contrast, Borrell and Associates - another research company - has found that free newspaper web sites increase newspapers' LOCAL REACH by as much as 15 percent. Furthermore, Borrell's research indicates that the online newspaper is often the medium with the second-highest reach in markets - behind only the printed newspaper - and ahead of radio and TV stations.

TownNews.com has a SWAT (Special Web Advertising Team) that goes on location to sell online advertising on behalf of newspapers. Our experience shows that it is much easier to sell advertising on free sites than on paid sites. In fact, we won't even assign our SWAT team to sell advertising on paid sites - the effort is too painful.

To summarize: If a publisher insists on a paid site, the technology exists. But there is a cost: a paid online newspaper probably won't help attract new, younger, more affluent readers. And, the potential to sell advertising on the online newspaper is severely limited.

(Marc Wilson is general manager/ceo of TownNews.com. He is reachable at marcus@townnews.com.)