Saturday, December 31, 2011
On (finally, incredibly) paying for news online.
I just subscribed to a newspaper for the first time in my life. I'm a journalist, but a young one, and so have until now been able to get my news for free, on the web. (Fun fact: I have paid for exactly two copies of a newspaper in my life: one for each journalism degree, as required by a professor for class.) As paywalls are slowly but finally erected, my hand is forced. In this case, for the New York Times.
A few thoughts as I offer my credit card number to the news gods:
1.) This is an especially difficult transition for anyone who could be called a "Millennial," since we've never paid for news.
2.) The value proposition is also challenging because advertisements remain all over the site. Online users have been taught that payment for a website often allows for a tradeoff in the amount of ads. This is not the case here.
3.) In the New York Times' case, the payment structure is, in a word, ridiculous. (If you're unfamiliar: $15 per month [$195 per year] for website + smartphone app, $20 per month [$240 per year] for website + tablet app, $35 per month [$455 per year] for website + tablet + smartphone apps.) Make no mistake: I'm not harping on the sticker price, I'm complaining about how these products are packaged. How much does high-quality journalism actually cost? How much does app development for each platform really cost? Bundle pricing understandably masks this, but the NYT's particular structure takes the representative costs way out of proportion to the end user. (Do apps really cost more than high-quality journalism? They do according to the structure outlined above. To the reader, it's an a la carte menu devised by Tim Burton, as perplexing as a medical insurance bill.) Even without comparing these prices to those of other newspapers -- let's assume, for argument's sake, that the NYT is unique and irreplaceable, kind of like The New Yorker -- it just doesn't add up to the consumer. Yes, it's reasonable to charge extra for multiple ways to view the content, since each platform costs money to maintain. But this pricing structure makes it appear as though NYT is trying to penalize the reader for being technologically savvy. It's unbecoming.
4.) Another thing with regard to the NYT: all but the "all access" digital subscriptions don't allow a family member access. This is malarkey. If I subscribe to the print newspaper, I can share it with everyone in my household. Call it the "kitchen table" concept. This should be the same digitally. There's no reason my wife should pay full price for the NYT if I subscribe, and every method I could use to get around this (having her use my computer; sharing my login information) creates a road that NYT can't monetize. NYT bean counters: get smart and adjust the prices to align with actual use cases, or risk losing money like record companies did in the Napster era when they moved to block, instead of reasonably monetize, the ways users were using their content.
5.) Paywalls spell trouble for many newspapers, and I expect to see consolidation in the industry accelerate. I no longer live in New York, but I'm more willing to pay for NYT than the Philadelphia Inquirer online. I wish I could get both. Most people will only have the time to read, and be willing to pay for, one daily newspaper. How will the cards fall? To survive, regional papers will need to wrestle potential digital readers in their region away from national brands like NYT, WSJ, etc. with quality content and products -- good enough to be an alternative to the above marquee brands -- or face apathy. (A point for further exploration: regional daily papers who pursued the "local only" strategy, such as the Inquirer, will be forced to price themselves to complement a daily national news subscription, e.g. the New York Times, to survive -- or rebuild their diminished national and foreign desks to be good enough to compete for a single daily subscription.) Similarly, the NYT will, as most have predicted, lose its occasional readers. The era of "filter failure" is rapidly coming to a close as paywalls go up. Which news brands will readers choose when they are forced to pay for just one?
6.) Corollary to the above: the wild card here is the always-free websites, from the reblog-happy Huffington Post to other sites like TheAtlantic.com or those for which I work. Do those sites benefit from paywalls going up? In a sense, yes, because occasional readers of NYT et. al. will find their news elsewhere, where it's free. On the other hand, the affinity of those readers is low -- not a good foundation on which to build a readership against which to sell ads, from a publication's perspective.