But that's about to change. This month, the local paper in Rhode Island said it would begin charging readers for its Internet edition.
"We did feel that putting a small amount of content on our site for free [had] hurt our circulation," says Sheila Mullowney, the paper's executive editor.
"Fewer people are paying to read newspapers today and that -- combined with what's going on right now in the economy and the fact that a lot of our advertisers are hurting and our business is hurting -- putting that information out for free no longer seemed like a viable business model for us."
What's happening at Mullowney's paper is an example of how the industry is trying to find ways to survive and prosper in a rapidly changing media environment.
Recent months have seen the demise of big daily papers in the United States that have existed for over a century, including the "Rocky Mountain News" and the "Seattle-Post Intelligencer."
Other titles including the "Los Angeles Times" are in bankruptcy and thousands of print-journalism jobs have been cut in the last couple of years.
The worry is that the implications go beyond the news industry and could threaten democracy itself. If newspapers die, who will act as a watchdog to keep corrupt politicians in line?
And while the United States is at the sharp end, newspapers across the ocean are in crisis too, says Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
He spoke to RFE/RL fresh from a meeting with unions at WAZ, a German media group that runs daily newspapers throughout Southeast Europe.
"This is a company that has been forced to centralize its news operations, it's cut 300 jobs in Germany, and it's trying to find a way of making up for massive losses in advertising and circulation," White says.
"The story is much the same right across the continent, in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, in Russia, the newspaper industry is under severe pressure."
The global recession has added to the industry's woes. But major changes were already under way, thanks to the rise of the Internet.
Readers can now get much of their news online for free -- thanks, largely, to the newspapers themselves. And advertisers have followed, migrating to the web instead of spending their money on print.
At a recent U.S. Senate hearing on the future of journalism, TV producer and former reporter David Simon described new media in less-than-flattering terms.
"Thus far [the Internet] doesn't deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary, and froth," Simon said.
"Meanwhile, readers acquire news from aggregators and abandon its point of origin, namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host."
Chasing The Money
But the signs are that the days of "free news" online might be numbered.
Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media mogul, announced earlier this month plans to start charging for more online content across his media empire, much as his "Wall Street Journal" already does.
Similar schemes are being considered by publishers such as the New York Times Company.
And the Associated Press cites a recent survey of North American newspaper editors that said more than one quarter of them were considering similar moves.
But will readers cosseted by years of free content be willing to pay?
That will be one of the topics on the agenda at the World Association of Newspapers conference in Barcelona on May 27-28.
The association's spokesman, Larry Kilman, sees a "small silver lining" in how the financial crisis has encouraged a more serious discussion about online fees.
"There's been a lack of understanding of how expensive good journalism is and somebody's got to pay for it," Kilman says.
"Are consumers willing to pay for it online? One of the presentations at the conference is a new study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers that shows they are indeed willing to pay for online content if they find it relevant to them."
Advocates of online fees point to changes over the past few years in the music industry. In particular, the rise of services such as Apple's iTunes showed that many people are willing to pay a relatively small amount for individual songs.
"The same could be developed for newspapers, so if you want to download an article or a section of a newspaper you should be able to make a micropayment," the IFJ's White says.
Who Will Pay?
But while online fees might be viable for specialized publications, like business news, the question is whether they would work with more general newspapers.
And even those with successful "pay walls" won't be able to rely on online fees alone to generate profit, according to Pat Kane, the founder of a British Sunday newspaper, who spoke at a journalism event in London last week.
"I don't agree [about] the 'pay wall' approach that people like Murdoch are reviving in terms of 'we do something special and brilliant and richly contextual and full of authority and therefore we must put it behind a pay wall.' I think that's a defeatist counsel," Kane said.
"The authority of traditional news organizations is something that can be value-added, but they'll have to think quite cleverly about how they monetize that moment."
One of Kane's suggestions -- newspapers could be news websites during the week and print publications only on the weekends, when people have more leisure time to peruse something made of "wood pulp and ink."
Critics also question whether online fees might backfire by driving away readers.
"The Newport Daily News'" decision prompted this response on a rival news site: "I will not read anything online I have to pay for! Enough is enough!"
But Mullowney says her paper has had positive feedback, too, and has already started selling subscriptions. Across the industry, she says, newspapers are "going to have to realize they have to charge for content."