Rumor: New York Times Gearing Up To Charge 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.
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.