Reinventing the Newsroom

Sizing Up the New York Times’ Paid-Access Plan

Posted in Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on March 17, 2011

This is an expansion and rewrite of thoughts first shared at the invitation of Nieman Journalism Lab, as presented here:

First up, thoughts on the Times’ actual plan.

We should all remember that this is the beginning of the Times’ strategy, not its finished form. The Financial Times is the paper that’s had the most success with the so-called metered model, and they’ve tweaked that model six ways to Sunday since introducing it. The Times will do the same. One of the basic principles of digital anything, from storytelling to design, is that it’s iterative — you experiment and learn and refine. Any sane paid-access plans will be iterative too — yet the Times’ first attempt was treated as if it had been handed down from Mount Sulzberger carved in stone.

So where would I iterate? Having a different cost scale based on device strikes me as a short-term approach that flies in the face of where our changing digital habits will lead us — the idea that people will pay extra for different experiences as delivered by different devices is worth exploring, but asking them to pay extra for the same information displayed in a different form factor won’t work in the long run, and maybe even not the medium one. On the flip side, I think free access for all home-delivery subscribers is too timid — I’d gladly pay for the Times in digital form, but I won’t have to because I have Saturday/Sunday home delivery. By ignoring bundles of print twice a week, I actually save money on what I’d pay for full digital access. (Though see Nieman’s Joshua Benton on why this might make more sense than I think.)

One thing I wouldn’t worry about — at all — is that the paid-access restrictions can be evaded. This is seemingly always raised by digital-media pundits, which is somewhat understandable: A lot of us are comfortable with technology and like playing with it. But because that’s true of us and a lot of folks we talk shop with, we overestimate how true it is of everybody else.

Here’s Cory Doctorow, for instance: “lots of people will take countermeasures to beat the #nytpaywall. The easiest of these, of course, will be to turn off cookies so that the Times’s site has no way to know how many pages you’ve seen this month”. Alternately, he imagines that someone will create “a browser redirection service that pipes links to through auto-generated tweets, creating valid Twitter referrers to Times stories that aren’t blocked by the paywall; or write a browser extension that sets ‘$VALID_TWEET_GUID’, or some other clever measure that has probably already been posted to the comments below”. The Times, Doctorow predicts, will then “build all kinds of countermeasures to detect and thwart cookie-blocking, referer spoofing, and suchlike.”

If the Times’ leaders are smart, they’ll do no such thing, because there’s a huge audience of people out there who would laugh out loud at anything that posits turning off cookies as the easiest bit of technological trickery, even without that blithe “of course.” There are always going to be technologically adept folks who like getting around barriers, and less-adept folks who have more time than money. The effort required to thwart them isn’t worth it, particularly since it makes it more likely that you’ll accidentally shut out law-abiding people. It makes far more sense to focus on folks who either don’t know how to play techno-ninja or don’t consider it worth the effort, because they’re willing to pay a reasonable price for an experience that isn’t a pain in the ass.

Other industries prove the point. If I hear a song I like and want a digital download of it, I can get one for free with a little work. I can search for it on a music blog that has downloadable MP3s that haven’t expired. I can find a torrent of it. I can stream it and capture the audio. I can do a lot of things. If your starting point in assessing a plan is whether its technological safeguards can be evaded, you’d assume the digital-music industry couldn’t exist. In fact, it’s worth $5 billion a year.  (I know what you’re about to say. Hold that thought for a moment.)

Closer to home, remember the 2009 episode of “The Office” in which the Dunder Mifflin staff wants to read a Wall Street Journal article but are flummoxed by the paywall? After asking “Are you serious?” Jim gets through to the article, probably using the old trick of searching for the article title in Google and accessing it through Google News. (See it here — the relevant scene begins around the 2:30 mark.) Paid-access critics had a field day, with one noting that “you know your sneaky little trick of getting around the Wall Street Journal’s paywall is mainstream if they demonstrate it” on an NBC prime-time show. But this misses something pretty basic: Two people at Dunder Mifflin knew the trick, but 10 didn’t. Smart publishers don’t have to worry about leaky paywalls, because Jim Halperts are — despite what they themselves think — relatively rare.

I think there are two much bigger problems faced by news organizations contemplating paid access: unfortunate vocabulary and outsized expectations.

First up, the industry ought to hold a contest to find a term to replace “paywall,” because it’s a self-defeating word for what organizations are trying to do. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but a NYT reader’s comment on the announcement brought it home: “I am sorry to say that I will no longer be able to read the NYTimes online.” But she will! She can read 20 articles per month, and if she maxes that out she can read five a day through Google, or as many as she wants through Facebook, Twitter, or blogs. That’s quite a lot for free. What the “metered model” (a terrible term in its own right) really does is define who a publication’s most-loyal readers are and try to convert them to paid supporters. It’s more like a narrowcasted pledge drive than a paywall. If paid access were framed in those terms, I think there’d be fewer misapprehensions like the commenter’s and more support among loyalists.

But this gets us to my second point, about expectations. By their nature, paid-access approaches like this one are likely to yield relatively small returns. Even if they’re very successful in converting loyalists, they’re fishing in an awfully small pond — one that’s wisely chosen but far too small to sustain newsgathering operations of the size and scope seen in print’s heyday. (And this gets back to the music industry: $5 billion is pretty good, but the industry used to be a whole lot larger.) The traditional newspaper industry is going to get a lot smaller even if approaches such as the Times’ model work. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not — you can’t run an industry still sized for analog dollars on digital dimes. To pretend otherwise ensures that all paid-access approaches will be judged against something they can’t compete with, and seen as failures.

%d bloggers like this: