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Rumor: New York Times Gearing Up To Charge For Online Content

Rumor: New York Times Gearing Up To Charge For Online Content

pay for online content

I totally get that they’re strapped, but I think this is really bad news.

Rumors suggest that the New York Times is close to announcing that the paper will begin charging for access to its website, according to a post in NY Mag from earlier this week. Sources for this story are vague and shadowy, but supposedly include people currently employed by the organization and “familiar with internal deliberations” at the New York Times. If this story is true, the only thing close to good news is that word has it they are leaning toward a metered system of subscription where you will be allowed to read a certain number of articles on the New York Times website for free, and then after that number is reached would be asked to subscribe. This is, at the very least, far preferable to the system used by The Wall Street Journal where some content is free but the content that is protected is completely placed behind a wall, and totally unavailable (even and especially to search engines) unless you subscribe.

Sources for the New York Mag post claim that the official plan for the online future of the New York Times will be announced within a few weeks, but that any actual implementation of the policy will take months to enact. There is no official statement confirming or denying these rumors at present, and The Nytpicker demonstrates that most of this information has been reported in various forms from different sources over the past year anyway, so it’s impossible to claim that the New York Times is any closer now than it ever has been to figuring out how best to handle online content.

Whether or not the NY Mag story is legitimate, I am left wondering how this will play out. I am picturing that episode of The Office where there’s a link to the WSJ article about Dunder Mifflin going bankrupt and all the Office staff are standing around wanting to know more about it, but Oscar says they cannot read the whole story because it requires a subscription, and he is waiting for someone to give him the go-ahead to spend company money. In response, Michael says “Wow, $1.99 to read the rest of the story . . .” as if this is an unimaginable request, but that it’s time to move on, which prompts Jim to ask, “Are you serious?!” and put in a code. After all is said and done, Andy makes a point of saying that he’ll pay for the $1.99, but that Jim beat him to it (actual episode embed is above).

The metaphor makes sense to me: the Jims of the world will be willing to subscribe, but only when it’s absolutely necessary, and the Oscars and the Dwights of the world will look over the shoulders of the Jims so they don’t have to pay. The Michaels of the world will assume the content cannot be all that important, or certainly not important enough to justify an expenditure of $1.99, and remain unconcerned. The very concerned people in a particular niche, as well as the always-already-plugged-in consumers will subscribe long term, and everyone else will find something else to read. This would, in effect, mean the newspaper online experience a niche market in the future, which is fine, except they cannot support the infrastructure as it exists at present on that kind of budget. They’d have to be totally reorganized.

Source: Silicon Alley Insider

Let’s not forget that there are moments when papers of record like the NYT are crucial. Example: Haiti. How are we going to get coverage on Haiti without giant news conglomerates getting involved? Is Boing-Boing going to send out Cory Doctorow to report? What about Arianna Huffington? Will she actually foot the bill for a trip to Haiti, and is her unpaid writing staff up to the job? How good is Dooce’s photography going to hold up to people getting crushed under a building? Can you Photoshop in doom and destruction? Would she even be willing to do this? It seems clear that with situations like Haiti there’s just not anybody in the blogosphere fully equipped to deal with it: even with the idea of the citizen blogger at work, you cannot really rely on people in the middle of a disaster zone to stop what they’re doing and report for the rest of the world. I mean, is there WiFi in Haiti even under the best of circumstances?

It seems like the only way for the newspapers to survive is to bind together and create something like a global newspaper of record that provides almost all of its content in an online format only, for free, with advertising, and shares its resources throughout the globe. Every individual organization has to be pared down to its bare bones, and companies wanting to advertise will have to do so online. The newspapers need to just take the option of paper advertising out of their hands because, as this recent study of advertising dollar allotment shows, they just don’t seem to be getting it. Companies are still putting tons of money into print media in a totally disproportionate rate to how much they spend for online advertising, even as they lament the fact that the attention and the content has all gone online.

Just for perspective, I asked my Dad what he thought of the whole newspaper thing and what he was going to do about it, because I figured he’d be a good source, what with his love of print media and his general distaste for technology. He said that he had thought about subscribing to the Wall Street Journal, but that they wanted him to sign up for a whole year at a time, and he just couldn’t stomach it, didn’t think he’d use it, so he hadn’t gone for it. And what about The New York Times, what would he do if they charged for content and/or weren’t available in print format anymore? He said, “Well, I might consider subscribing to them if the LA Times stopped publishing or something.” Bottom line: even the old skool print people look to print as a local medium first and foremost — my Dad knows the NYT is a better newspaper than the LA Times, but it doesn’t have his local information, so he won’t be paying for a paper subscription, much less paying to view online content. I just don’t see how this model is going to work.

Comments (10)

  1. Jan 20, 2010

    What will happen is that people will give up reading news altogether, and just get their news from those 24-hour news channels, which are 99.999% bullshit and hyperbole.

    And then we’ll see evidence of a stupid, uninformed citizenry…like very conservative Republican winning in Massachusetts.

    People get the government they deserve. We’re too stupid and lazy to read (free or paid), so now we’re doomed.

    I think the NYT is crazy to do this now…because there are people like me who would gladly pay for access, except that they don’t have income, so they can’t afford it. If they wait a year when the economy is better, and the people like me have the option of more discretionary purchases, they’ll have a much better chance. Right now, though, I’m not really in a position to take on another recurring expense, so it would have to be pretty cheap…otherwise, I’ll have to switch back to the Washington Post or something.

  2. Jan 20, 2010

    I agree with Anna that it makes more sense to abandon print and pool resources, and with Kerry that charging for content will alienate readers, but don’t necessarily see why online content should be free. When I first read Chris Anderson’s Wired article “Free” (http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/16-03/ff_free) I was convinced that the free model was the right one, but then I read Paula Bernstein’s rebuttal (http://www.writingshow.com/misc/Free.pdf) and agree with her that “free” has a cost and that someone somewhere will eventually have to pay. If people are motivated to read quality content, I believe they will pay. The bigger problem, as Kerry says, is that people are not motivated to read quality content, but that’s not necessarily a new American phenomenon.

    Re: Massachusetts, If all you need to do to win is drive around in a truck with the single message of killing health care reform what does that say about the effectiveness of the opposition? At some point Democrats have to come up with something better than harping on radical conservatives for being stupid, because they don’t care. In fact, lack of intelligence seems to be a point of shared pride.

  3. Jan 20, 2010

    Kerry, you’re right, right now would be an exceptionally bad time to make a switch. I’m not sure that it is happening right now, but it does seem like they are going to need to do something drastic very soon.

    Yeah, I’m a little pissed off about this whole MA thing. I don’t understand what the hell is going on up there.

  4. Jan 20, 2010

    Agree, lack of intelligence is definitely a point of shared pride, it’s like a homespun kind of thing. It’s like on the Pioneer Woman’s site, and by the way I think she is awesome and so smart, mind you, a great businesswoman, but what she is doing is selling stupid. She dumbs herself down. You can see it in her writing on occasion, she’ll let her intelligence shine through a bit. But she also tries to play up the more middle American angle because she knows it sells. I can’t fault her for it, because it clearly works. Her profile/bio used to read something about channelling Sylvia Plath and Ethel Merman, and then at some point she removed the Sylvia Plath. I found this fascinating.

    Re: Free, I don’t know that it’s a situation where online content should be free, it’s just that this is what the market supports. I mean, maybe at some point all the quality will be eliminated because everyone wants free and then we’ll have to go back to paying. I haven’t red the Paula Bernstein article, though, I will check it out!

  5. Jan 20, 2010

    Well, it turns out that they ARE going to wait a year (and why announcing this a year in advance is a good idea is an absolute mystery to me…it just gives people time to form attachments to other news sources. You want to have as little lead time as possible, so as to take advantage of people’s addictions. This is Crack Dealing 101 right here.).

    I hope and expect that we’ll all be in better economic shape a year from now, and they’ll have a better shot at making this work. I’m all for paying for quality news…I just think doing it at a time when people are cutting all discretionary spending is dumb.

  6. Jan 20, 2010

    That’s interesting about the Pioneer Woman. I absolutely cannot stand her site (I don’t have an opinion on HER, but the site leaves me cold). I’ve never been able to put my finger on what it is that irks me so much. That might just be it.

  7. Jan 20, 2010

    Anna, you’ve nailed it. It’s not that any of these folks selling stupid are stupid themselves. Au contraire. They are really smart, intelligent message marketers, and for the moment they’re whupping progressive/centrist butts! In my view, the fascinating question is why is the stupid message so popular? I think it’s got to do with the underlying strain of American anti-intellectualism that goes all the way back to the beginning of American history. Today it opposes the power elite, then it opposed the European aristocracy. The message is: off with their heads!

  8. Jan 20, 2010

    I’m not very interested in her content, but I like to watch what she does just to see how/why it’s successful. And from skimming her posts, this is the impression I’ve gotten of her. She’s very smart and plays it down to suit her ends. It’s a smart strategy, but yeah, it’s a question of whether you want to do it or not. I don’t think I can pull it off.

  9. Jan 20, 2010

    I’ve never really understood it, myself, but I think you might be onto something with the anti-aristocracy angle. It’s a luxury to have an “intellectual” slant, to be able to have knowledge separate from practical application. Americans like to pretend they’re no bullshit, even when they are full of it.

  10. Jan 21, 2010

    Agree, so DUMB to announce it ahead of time. Why not just spring it on people and then they’ll feel like they have to pay?

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