The other day, I had coffee with a friend who works for the New York Times. Early in the conversation, I admitted to him that I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the Times. I love much of the paper’s content (though I share Greenwald’s wish that the Times would call torture “torture”) and find that many of the most interesting stories I read in a week come from the Times. But I am getting really sick of the Times’s efforts to nickle and dime me as a digital subscriber. Despite paying for access to the paper’s excellent content, they somehow make me feel like a piker if I’m not a subscriber to the print edition at nearly a thousand dollars a year.
I can access the Times through MIT, but decided that I read the paper often enough on other devices and outside of MIT’s network that I should become a digital subscriber. For a couple of weeks, I was a satisfied customer, reading far more than my allotment of ten free stories in my browser, and flipping through the paper on my phone when in transit or waiting on lines. But then the Times implemented its new “three articles a day” plan for mobile readers of the paper. My digital subscription – which costs $240 a year – includes a tablet and web version of the newspaper, but getting unlimited access via my phone costs an additional $180 a year.
Because the Times evidently takes its business cues from the widely despised cable TV industry, they like to bundle their content. As a result, the best way to get digital access is to purchase it bundled with the paper edition of the newspaper… which the Times won’t deliver to my rural address. I could also downgrade my bundle from web and iPad to web and phone, but it seems bizarre to me that digital data paid for in one place can’t be used in another.
And so I’ve found myself in the space of Times hacking, looking for ways to get content I want to read for a less exorbitant price than the Times wants to charge. (My current strategies: I am using my web subscription to dump articles to Instapaper, which I then read on my phone. Take that, Big Media!) Here, I join a large cadre of people who proudly post their tips for defrauding the Times so they can continue reading for free.
Let’s compare this situation to another media organization many New York Times readers rely on: public radio. No one writes articles bragging about how they avoided donating to NPR or how they get podcasts for free. In part, that’s because we don’t have to – public radio, for technical and historical reasons associated with the challenge of monetizing broadcast radio, is free by default, supported by voluntary donations. But there’s another reason: people love public radio, want to support it and feel guilty when they don’t.
I don’t intend to argue that the New York Times should become member supported. But I do want to make the case that they would benefit from thinking about the relationship public radio stations and shows have built with their members.
There’s a diagram that often gets drawn on napkins or whiteboards when media people get together: a Pareto, or long-tail curve, where the Y axis represents how engaged with content your readers are, and the X axis represents your reader population. Near the origin of the graph, the curve is very high – those are the small set of users who are deeply engaged with your content. Farther from the origin, as the curve flattens out, we have the majority of readers, who engage with your content occasionally. For the New York Times, it’s key to turn the folks on the left of the graph into subscribers and to make money from the right of the graph through ads. And as we head towards Peak Ad, it’s increasingly important to move readers across the paywall that separates the left and right side of the graph.
Public radio stations, producers and podcasters face a similar graph. In their case, it’s critical to get the left side of the graph to become members or make donations. But instead of dropping a paywall, they use a combination of gratitude and guilt to persuade their most engaged listeners to support their programming. When they do it well, their listeners feel terrific: Ira Glass urges listeners to defray WBEZ’s bandwidth costs for delivering This American Life online, telling us that if we could give more than $5, we’d pay not only our costs but those of listeners who don’t donate. And if we don’t donate? We feel guilty, but not criminal. The New York Times, which reminds me how many of my three free stories I’ve read on my phone, makes me feel like there’s a security guard trailing me to make sure I don’t stuff an extra New York Times article down my pants.
I suspect the business folks at the Times are operating under the assumption that there are only two places to be on their subscriber/revenue curve – you can be a subscriber and pay $300-800 a year, or you can be an outsider and cover a tiny fraction of your free riding with ad views. But there’s another option: the Times could start thinking of its readers in terms of subscribers, fans and passers-by. The Times won’t monetize passers-by, except through ads – these are folks who stumble onto the site occasionally and may not even realize they are reading Times content. That’s frustrating, but that’s how the web works. And the Times should certainly cultivate subscribers and encourage more fans to become subscribers. But they might do a better job of that by courting their fans, instead of locking them out.
Fans could be encouraged to support content on the Times not through a threat of locking them out, but by encouraging them to support the paper, and especially, the parts of the paper they value the most. When I donate to WNYC, I always take the opportunity to tell WNYC that I’m not a customer of the station as a whole, but of On The Media, my favorite outlet for smart media criticism. I have to think that some Times readers would love the opportunity to give to the paper and say, “Please don’t give this to Maureen Dowd. I’m giving in the hope of more Ta-Nehisi Coates op-eds.”
A New York Times that courted its fans would help fans track how much content they access from the Times, and perhaps, from other sources as well. It would take a suggestion from Doc Searls’s ideas about tracking usage of public radio and allowing users to donate to stations or programs that they listen to often. It might recognize that fans of the Times are fans of other publications, like The Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor or Planet Money, and band together with some of those other outlets to build a common tracking, membership and recommendations platform. (It would be very interesting for New York Times fans to discover they’re deeply dependent on the site’s content… or that they actually read other sources more than the times.) It could start treating fans who choose to subscribe as members, thanking them for making media accessible to others rather than making it clear that their content is only for those who pay.
Making news accessible for non-readers as well as readers is critical. News organizations have two bottom lines: they need to make enough money to keep the presses running, and they need to have a civic impact, holding the powerful responsible and giving citizens the information they need to participate in a democracy. As ad revenues decline, there’s a tendency for paywalled news sites to provide information only to the small group of people who subscribe to the paper. In the process, it’s possible that newspapers will lose their broader civic impact. If sites could find a way to get support from non-subscribers as fans, they could open their content to a broader audience and have more civic influence.
This would require some serious rethinking for the Times, and it’s quite possible they can support their reporting without making this change in the short term. But if we’re moving to a world where people are less dependent on a single media source, like the Times, and more inclined to pick and choose news from multiple sites, the Times will need to realize that fans can’t pay $300 to each content provider they want to support. Perhaps it’s time for the Times to start embracing and celebrating those fans, instead of alienating them.