Scott Spiegel

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NYT Charges for Content People Avoided When It Was Free

March 30, 2011 By: Scott Spiegel Category: Media

paywall

With the news that Frank Rich and Bob Herbert have left The New York Times, the selection of my 20 free Times articles a month couldn’t be less strongly affected if Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd decided to quit.

Recently John Gruber of Daring Fireball deconstructed the imbecilic, overly complicated pricing structure the non-business-adept Times has spent a year-and-a-half and tens of millions of dollars devising to undergird its new digital subscription plan.

The Times’ business model, in addition to being extraordinarily confusing, includes the following giant loophole: “Readers who come to Times articles through links from search engines, blogs and social media will be able to read those articles, even if they have reached their monthly reading limit.”

So if you find a story on the Times site that looks worthwhile (suspend your disbelief for a moment), but you’ve reached your monthly limit, you can just copy the title, paste it in a search engine, and click on it from a site that links to it.

Admittedly, this is too much work for most people to bother to find out, say, Dowd’s opinion on the rise of Mormons in popular culture, but some tenacious fans will undoubtedly make the effort.

Perhaps The Times hopes its free backdoor policy will lead more social media outlets to link to their articles.  Maybe they’re afraid they won’t easily be able to regulate access from third-party sources.  But either way, doesn’t this aspect of their plan defeat the purpose of limiting content in order to make people buy subscriptions?

All articles from the Top News section will continue to be available for free via New York Times smartphone and tablet apps.

Also, purchasing just the Sunday print version will give you the most comprehensive tier of unlimited access to digital content, including online, smartphone, and tablet.  This leads Reuters’ Felix Salmon to wonder, “[I]f you get a Sunday-only subscription and then suspend delivery of the physical newspaper while you ‘go on vacation’ for a month or two at a time, how long can you drag out your free access to the website before the NYT gets wise to what you’re doing?”

I guess we shouldn’t expect a sterling business model from a paper whose editorial board believes the way to create wealth is to blow up federal spending and increase federal regulation of the economy by an order of magnitude.

Isn’t The Wall Street Journal’s model much more sensible: everyone has free access to most online content, but key articles require a subscription?  Isn’t it easier to tie access to content, rather than try to tabulate the ephemeral surfing activities of millions of users out there in the ether?

The Times and Journal’s payment plans seem to reflect their ideological worldviews: The Journal, which leans right, offers general content funded via advertising and charges for premium content readers are willing to pay for, a typical capitalist arrangement.  In contrast, The Times, which leans left, will rely on a cadre of loyal followers willing to donate the equivalent of welfare to keep the sputtering paper going, regardless of how frequently the journal offers specific content worth paying for.

In the same way that liberal celebrities frequently announce how much they love paying taxes, soon I can imagine New York elites sanctimoniously defending the Times’ plan by declaring how much they adore shelling out for its superlative content.

Given the astronomical cost of the Times’ plan, only rich liberals will be able to afford it anyway.

At least the new digital subscription plan is an improvement over the short-lived TimesSelect debacle, in which the paper charged for online access to the site’s premium content—which included such must-read material as the repetitive, stale-as-a-cigarette-butt columns of Krugman, Herbert, Rich, and Dowd.

Borrowing language from President Obama’s State of the Union address, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. announced in a letter to readers that the new subscription plan is an “investment in our future.”

In other words, Obama implied that taxpayers should subsidize inefficient, underused high-speed rail—so more people will be forced to use something they didn’t use when they didn’t have to pay for it, and other options hadn’t been driven from the market.  Similarly, Times readers will now have to pay for biased, slanted content so more people will be forced to read something they didn’t want to read when they didn’t have to pay for it, and other options hadn’t been driven from the market.

Except that The Times won’t continue to dominate the news market the way government-subsidized boondoggles like high-speed rail and ObamaCare will take over their markets.  Does The Times really think they’re the only game in town?  The Times is one of those papers everyone reads because everyone else reads it.  That won’t be true once people start getting charged hundreds of dollars a year to read it.

Unless the federal government steps in and gives The Times a giant bailout, consumers are going to wise up and start getting their content elsewhere.  Not only does the sclerotic, past-its-prime paper’s poorly conceived paywall fail to invest in its own future, it indirectly invests in its competitors’ futures.

Which is fine with me.

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