Even if the New York Times’s pay wall works, it will fail
I’ve been thinking all day about how and what to write about the New York Times’ announcement that, in a year’s time, it’s going to start charging readers who exceed a certain quota of articles per month on its website. The Times hasn’t said what that number will be yet, but most people who’ve written on it– David Carr, Felix Salmon, John Gapper, etc., seem to think it’s going to be in the neighborhood 15-30 articles. That is, high enough to make sure casual readers aren’t dissuaded, but low enough to make sure hardcore users pay for the product. (By the way, I’m not really feeling my hyperlink icon tonight– for the full range of URLs on today’s announcement and reactions, including his own, visit Felix Salmon’s blog.) I have to say, upon reflection, this strikes me as a plan that’s not going to work. Part of it is what Jack Shafer of Slate says is the Times’ wrong-headed focus: by not concentrating on improving advertising metrics, the paper is going to get into a war of attrition with its tech savvy users.
By the very nature of the web, that group (tech savvy users) is just going to get bigger and bigger. Today I defeated the Financial Times paywall to read John Gapper’s story using the browser extension Jack Shafer plugged in his article. Am I particularly happy with that? No, not really. Do I find Gapper’s story valuable? Yes, I do. Do I find it worth buying a $186 annual subscription to the newspaper? No, I don’t. I might feel bad about this, writing about media and business, but then, the Times’ David Carr just tweeted about the same problem, so apparently the Gray Lady feels the same way about paying for newspaper subscriptions that I do. If journalists won’t support each others’ competitors’ economic models when they involve payment, do they really think the average reader will?
I have to again agree with Shafer that the idea that the Times is going to spend a year constructing a pay wall rather than building up an advertising system that works seems shortsighted. I have a feeling there’s a zero-sum psychology happening in the Times’ executive suite, and it’s a fallacy. Their idea is, that ‘if we put up this wall at least SOME users will pay, right? And that’s better than no users paying, right?’ The reality, as the numbers have been run before, is that the amount of users and money needed to make the Times’ pay wall a viable and major part of the business model is ridiculously high. What the Internet has proven is that the Times has no special claim to its readers’ time on the web. If The Huffington Post can surpass the Times’ traffic in a matter of years, and if Twitter can surpass the Times’ traffic in a matter of months, then THOSE are the competitors the Times needs to be worrying about. In fact, the Times won the newsstand war, generations ago, which is why we’re having this conversation today. And it won it by treating its readers with respect and encouraging them to turn to it every day, not by eyeing them with suspicion when they do.
The Times is not a product on a news stand, competing against other broadsheets who also charge for their physical copy. The Times, for most people, and certainly to survive going forward, is a product on the Internet, competing against other websites. And those websites, by and large, are free. And though some of them may lean on the Times’ reporting now, make no mistake, when that reporting begins to decline due to economic pressures or simple stagnation, other sources will rise in the Times’ place. No amount of flagship reporting from the Baghdad bureau is going to replace the simple fact that in 99.9% of the world, there are alternative sources of information to the New York Times.
I say all this as a big believer in the Times’ mission and importance to our society. The economics of the media are brutal right now. I know. But putting up a pay wall with a bunch of big holes in it just seems like a massive waste of resources, energy and karma for the paper of record. And rewarding print subscribers with free access seems perverse. Yeah, sure, you have to, because they are your core business, and they’d never pay twice for the same product. But why would you, as the Times, then go ahead and GIVE them the same product, twice, for one payment? The web is a fundamentally different more robust experience than the paper. Why reward the readers who buy your dead-tree editions and make you invest more money in labor contracts, printing plants, paper mills, ink, shipping, delivery, etc? Is it crazy to think that the Times should be incentivizing readers to get out of that cycle, and turn to the web, instead? Or turn to an e-reader, where the fundamentally different experience and means of delivery might be worth a small subscription fee?
The bottom line for me is, there’s a bunch of wildly competent journalists manning the desks at the Times, whose work I want to read and whose jobs I want to support. But the executives are stuck in some kind of perverse time warp when making business decisions about the paper’s future. TimesSelect didn’t work, so this time, let’s lock the entire paper down, instead? But we’ll leave these gaping holes (sorry to repeat myself) in the wall, so that anyone with half a brain can get around them?
I wish I felt like being productive here and suggesting an alternative way for the paper to make money, but I’m not quite finished feeling insulted by the CEO and publisher, who seem to think if they simply stick out their palms, they’ll catch some coins in them. That may in fact be true, but that’s no guarantee they’re going to be able to buy a cup of coffee, much less run a newspaper, with the amount of money they make. What they’re creating, in the end, is a galling Catch-22 which punishes their most frequent customers and rewards passers-by. In time, that strategy will turn loyal readers into passers by, so that even if the Times survives, it will have sacrificed the importance of its own voice to do so, making it just another clamoring shrill noise fighting for a sliver of our attentions in a world already full of such hideous sounds.