The Times They Are A-Changin’

As was reported last week (and noted today in our Monday Medley), The New York Times is planning to announce that it will soon begin charging for its online content. In some respects, this was inevitable: In order to produce a product, you need to generate revenue, and it’s becoming clear to many people in high places that online ad revenue is not going to sufficiently replace the revenue from print ads.

Nevertheless, this move seems like it may come too late in the game: Readers are already used to getting the Times (and newspapers in general) for free online, and charging these readers is likely going to drive a significant number of them to other sources. It’s true that some papers, most notably the Wall Street Journal, have succeeded with a pay-for-content model, but this won’t necessarily translate for the Times. For one, the WSJ has a reputation for expertise in a particularly valued field—finance—so people are likely willing to pay more for that content. More important, though, is that the Times operates on a different standard for readership; even at the height of the financial crisis, when people turned more and more to the WSJ for their news, the Times got about 30% more unique visitors. That number would almost certainly shrink—and with it, ad rates—once the website starts to charge for content.

It is probably wise, then, that the Times is evidently leaning towards a “metered” system. Instead of a simple pay-wall, in which certain content remains restricted, the system will allow casual readers to browse for free, only charging once you overstayed your welcome. This will obviously keep some readers, but once people get tired of having their browsing interrupted, some will stop going to the Times with the same frequency.

Is the Times in danger of obsolescence? Of course not, at least not in the short term. It’s still the most popular newspaper in the world, and it will likely remain the most popular online news source even after they begin charging. But the editors and publishers are clear in that they are enacting this change in order to keep up with an evolving business-model. In other words, this is part of the plan to offset the inevitable transition from print-primacy to online-primacy. In the long term, though, this move is not likely to generate enough revenue to support an entire paper, at least one of the size and quality of The New York Times.

Things might be different if this move had been made earlier, if readers were not used to free news content from all their sources. This is analogous to the “Napster effect”: Once music fans got used to getting music for free, CD sales never recovered, even after the RIAA’s ridiculously coercive efforts to end file-sharing. Similarly, even an institution as trend-setting and important as The New York Times probably can’t undo almost a decade of people assuming online content should be free.

David Simon, creator of The Wire (the fifth season of which was essentially one long invective against the newspaper industry), has said that the Internet is not really to blame for the demise of the newspaper. The industry (the Times, actually, is an exception to this) got especially profit-hungry in the 1980s and 1990s, as papers that were once family-owned were now being purchased by publicly traded companies. As such, staff was cut and profits were pocketed, and when the Internet came along, newspapers had neither the foresight to begin charging nor the quality of a product worth charging for. This theory may or may not be true, but it does seem as if the time to adapt has long since passed, and that even the eminent Times has missed the boat. This may keep them afloat a while longer, but they are ultimately doomed to drown. 

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Barbara on January 26, 2010 at 11:29 PM

    I don’t agree with this. Although I don’t want to pay for my news, it’s the quality and integrity of the news site or paper that makes me visit it. If there is a fair price to pay I will eventually pay and I believe that others will too for quality news reporting. Years ago the idea of paying to watch television and listen to radio was not readily acceptable, yet cable television and satellite radio are more profitable than ever. Paying for these services has become the norm. To increase its audience cable programming has continued to improve with shows such as The Wire, miniseries like John Adams, etc. More and more people are watching it despite the availabilty of free TV on Channels 2,4,5, etc. The same has happened to radio. I believe that newspapers such as the Times will adapt to justify its online access costs. The Times may have to reinvent or revisit some aspects of itself, but this should only create a new, improved version.

    Reply

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