What the New York Times should and shouldn’t charge for online
So, here we have it – the New York Times will put up a metered pay system of some sort a calendar year from now, letting incidental visitors who drop by a few times a month check things out for free, but making those of us who are more devoted readers pay up. Here’s the Times on the future NYTimes.com:
Starting in early 2011, visitors to NYTimes.com will get a certain number of articles free every month before being asked to pay a flat fee for unlimited access. Subscribers to the newspaper’s print edition will receive full access to the site.
But executives of The New York Times Company said they could not yet answer fundamental questions about the plan, like how much it would cost or what the limit would be on free reading. They stressed that the amount of free access could change with time, in response to economic conditions and reader demand.
“This announcement allows us to begin the thought process that’s going to answer so many of the questions that we all care about,” Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the company chairman and publisher of the newspaper, said in an interview. “We can’t get this halfway right or three-quarters of the way right. We have to get this really, really right.”
Well, I can already tell you what I’m going to do about this – go to my family members who pay for the print edition, and save their login to my browser. It’s what I did when TimesSelect existed. It’s what I’ll do this time, as long as those relations still breathe, and continue to pay for a newspaper to be dropped at their door every morning. Perhaps even after they stop breathing – ask me some time about all the dead people who used to get copies of the New York Sun.
But I think the Times is on to something here. Some people will pay to read Times content online if it’s economical. I was recently having a conversation with a person who shall remain anonymous. She spends a good chunk of every Sunday morning reading the Times on her laptop, particulary the Sunday Styles section, with an eye toward the Vows in particular. If it was a nominal amount of money, she’d pay for it. That’s the kind of premium, only in the Times content that I think Sulzberger and company should charge for. It’s the material they put together that serves as a diversion, sort of like the evening papers that Americans used to read after a long day of toil. There are millions of Americans who enjoy that content, and if they have to choose between not having it, and having it, I think they’ll pay for it.
However, there’s another kind of journalism that the Times does, and I think metering it under any circumstances will drive down unique visitors and pageviews to the site, and make it harder for them to sell ads, denting a powerful revenue stream for the paper over the short and long runs:
1) Breaking news coverage of developing events – the Times does a fabulous job of covering breaking news events, whether through The Lede blogger Robert Mackey and his backup, or its correspondents in far flung places telling the story as it really is. The work the paper and its editors do is unparalleled online in a lot of ways…but replaceable. If I’ve read 3 or 4 articles in a month, and then something goes down, I want to know about it. If I show up at the Times, am not a subscriber, and learn that I’ve reached my metered limit, I’m probably going to go somewhere else. Because while I love Mackey’s incremental coverage of breaking news, I can assemble a reasonable facsimile of it elsewhere. And if I don’t need to pay for it, I’ll read it there.
2) Deep investigations carried out in the public trust – the next time the government gets caught wiretapping American citizens, or we learn that the Pentagon is paying ex-generals to cook public opinion, I should be able to read about it online. Presumably, the New York Times still produces reported news that looks out to protect the public interest. If that news is being produced, it should be available to the public, regardless of whether or not they pay for it. It’s difficult to educate members of the public about really important things they need to be aware of when you’re hitting them up for a $3 day pass or something
My proposal leaves a lot of inventory for the Times to make money off of – from cute features in the Style section, to wrap-ups of what’s going on in the UN Security Council, to whatever David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, and Thomas Friedman want to be wrong about this week. The point is to create a dividing line between exclusive, entertainment-related content, and the stuff of Pulitzer Prizes and the collective memory of journalism as a thing that is necessary for the functioning of a society. Sell ads to make money off the stuff that is more than good – it’s important – but don’t make me pay for it, because I probably won’t.