Few words in recent weeks have been more gratifying than these, from a front-page story in today’s edition:

“When the Daily Press came out with the story about the wheel tax, our phones on the county board started ringing. E-mails, phone calls, Facebook posts. The majority of the people were against the wheel tax; they said it was not the time to do a tax because of the worldwide pandemic.”

Those words came from the mouth of Ashland County Board member Kathy Schutte of Marengo.

To be clear, I am not gratified that the proposed $25 wheel tax died at the meeting. Though personally I wouldn’t like paying the extra money, I also recognize that it’s easy to oppose new fees without offering alternatives or forgoing the services those fees support.

What gratifies me is that this newspaper remains such a critical source of information and that many of you readers understand the role we play as a watchdog on local government.

That said, though, I must say the story about the proposed wheel tax also was one of my greatest sources of frustration in recent weeks.

I posted and promoted on Facebook our story about the proposal before the vote — which led to a lot of those comments to elected folks that Schutte referred to.

It also led to a handful of readers complaining that they couldn’t read the story online without a subscription and requests that other readers illegally copy and paste the story onto Facebook so they could read it.

Frequent readers of my columns have heard my thoughts on this before: We pay our reporters and editors for their hard work, and we charge for the product they produce. Demanding their online stories to free is no more reasonable than walking into Kwik Trip and demanding a print newspaper for free.

What’s different this time around is that the readers who wanted the story for free clearly were hungry for information about the proposed wheel tax; in essence, saying, “You have something I want and need but I’m not willing to pony up $1.99 (or 10 bucks a month) for it.”

This is, to be blunt, an existential problem for newspapers. And I hope it causes thoughtful readers to pause and think.

Without our wheel tax story and ensuing outcry from voters, the county might very well have adopted the new fee. For most Ashland residents, that would mean $50 in new taxes a year.

Kind of makes $1.99 to read the story seam insignificant, doesn’t it?

And here’s the more critical point:  If people aren’t willing to pay for something they clearly value, this newspaper and thousands of others risk going out of business.

What other important information would you go without should that happen? Would you know that Ashland was dumping millions of gallons of sewage into the lake every year? Or that a local police officer had been accused of hitting another cop and sexually harassing a county employee? Or that a candidate for school board had previously resigned amid a harassment investigation?

I could go on about the just plain good stories we’ve written in recent weeks about interesting people doing interesting things — people who form the fabric of our community.

No one knows more than we at the Daily Press that times are tough. Our staff all are still on reduced hours and paychecks as a result of the pandemic.

My hope is that readers recognize that without us, they would be living in the dark. And that would be a lot more expensive than $1.99 — or $50 a year.

Peter J. Wasson is managing editor of the Ashland Daily Press.

(Copyright © 2020 APG Media)

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