a few weeks ago, the guardian site ( www.guardian.co.uk ) started charging to get into its popular crossword and for a few of its daily e-mail briefings. It also promised an ad-free version of the UK newspaper. You can still read the Guardian online for free. No site in my favourites column gets more play. It tends to be the first and last site I check each day, with several visits in between. That doesn't include the Guardian's dozens of spinoff sites (Books Unlimited, Film Unlimited, the Observer) that also get regular visits.
The Guardian's a fantastic newspaper but an even better Web site, if that's possible.
While most papers duplicate their print runs online and offer updates throughout the day, Guardian Unlimited remains one of the few to fully take advantage of what the Internet can offer, building stories on the Web, expanding them well beyond what's expected and reaching out to its readers through daily e-mail bulletins and newsletters.
The creators clearly understand what the Web can do and seem well ahead of papers like the New York Times in their online outreach, which is why the site's recent decision to start charging for online access to certain parts of the paper is worth paying attention to.
You have to wonder whether this is the end of something. Is the free ride over? In a word, no.
Newspapers and magazines have tried to charge for online access before, often with limited success. At the height of Web frenzy a few years ago, online magazine Slate ( www. slate. com ) switched to a pay-only mode. It was a disaster, and the magazine was soon free again and a better read for it.
Webzine Salon ( www.salon. com ) recently began charging readers for full access to stories, but this was a last-ditch effort to keep the operation afloat. Salon says it has more than 60,000 subscribers, but the site's quality has dropped so far that the claim seems hard to believe.
British newspapers have led the movement for subscription-based Web sites. The Independent ( www. independent.co.uk ), for example, recently began charging for online access to the columns of popular Mideast correspondent Robert Fisk and others.
It's understandable. Access to international newspapers remains one of the great positives of the Internet. For the price of your connection you can read local news from Iraq, Colombia, the UK, Iceland, Ouagadougou and beyond.
As record-label police would be quick to tell you, though, why bother paying for what you can get for free?
Magazines like The Economist have long charged for full access to their pages online. Generally, though, those fees also got you the key to huge Web-only archives.
The Guardian's move is an intriguing one. Those behind the site know that they've developed such a fanatical readership over the past few years that some, maybe even many, will gladly fork over a few bucks each month for more of the same.
It's hard to imagine a North American newspaper like the Globe & Mail ( www. globeandmail.ca ) or the New York Times ( www.nytimes.com ) pulling off a subscription fee. For them, online editions remain peripheral operations at best, a way to keep the news fresh, but they rarely enhance it or drive you further.
Hardly worth paying for, is it?