There’s some chatter about the New York Times survey to their customers on whether they’d be willing to pay $5 per month to access the content. They also asked if $2.50 would be acceptable. I didn’t get the survey, but as a long-time NYT reader, my answer would be an unequivocal “Yes, absolutely”.
What’s interesting is that this debate comes on the back of the larger debate around Wired editor Chris Anderson’s book, Free. I haven’t read his book (although I have read reviews) and I also read Malcolm Gladwell’s retort. When Chris Anderson says “free”, he means free to the consumer – but the reality is that nothing that takes time or effort to produce is ever free – someone is paying. Either the producer is paying for her own costs and giving away the end product or advertisers are supporting the product.
And that’s what is important to realize. The cost to produce something is not free (even if the cost to transmit and disseminate it may be close to free). So what happens when the producer has to get paid?
Let’s come back to the NY Times. Everyone is jumping up and down saying newspapers are dead. Agreed – I haven’t bought a printed paper in over 8 years. But journalism is not dead. Not even close. Today, I cannot go to one place and get the incredible breath and depth that the Times offers me. I can’t find exceptional political insight and funny technological coverage in a blog. If you point me to the Huffington Post (a site I was addicted to during the elections), I’d say, yep, great example of online journalism.
The journalists at the Times are fabulous at what they do. And they have to get paid to be able to continue to do what they are good at. So what’s the solution? It appears that advertising revenues online cannot cover those costs. It comes down to having the consumer pay something.
My recommendation is to allow consumers to get a certain number of articles free each month – say 10 articles. After that they get charged the $5 fee and they can read anything they want, including all the archives, for the rest of the month. For a frequent reader, like myself, I’d rather just have them autobill me. Forget the 10 free articles a month. I’ll blow through that on day 1 or 2 at the latest.
For the customer who comes to the NY Times site very rarely, their experience doesn’t change either – they can read their one or two articles and leave without feeling any pain.
The middle section – the group that reads maybe 20 articles will dither. But, $5 is about 1.25 Starbucks coffees. At $2.50 it is less than a Starbucks. Quality content written by journalists who are the best in their fields, edited by a top team of editors, across an incredibly wide range of topics for an entire month on one hand. One cup of coffee on the other. Seems like a no-brainer to me.
The issue is that we’ve been trained to expect content on the internet to be free. Retraining ourselves will be hard, but not impossible. If it is a question of not reading the NY Times or paying $5, I’d gladly pay the $5. I think they should offer a family rate too – so for something like $10, up to 5 people can read the Times.
Now for some caveats: I’m willing to pay to sustain the journalists and editors that bring me the content. I am not, however, willing to pay to sustain high-cost printing technology and all the infrastructural and organizational fat that is needed to support the print side of the business. As a consumer, I can’t really make that allocation, but I hope the Times will do the math and when paying print consumers stop supporting the cost of print, the print section gets shut down. Please do not make the eco-friendly online users support the dinosaurs’ tree-killing addiction. Oh, and while I’m at it – if I do pay, I really want the ability to embed the NY Times’ photos and videos. They are awesome and by allowing bloggers to embed them (with links back of course), the Times will actually get more traffic, not less.
Finally, the Times has to consider if someone else will fill the gap they leave with a great product that is free. The asset is the journalists. Unique individuals with unique voices. Not so easily done. And even if someone could do it free for a while, they’ll hit the same economic issues as the Times.
The Times seems to have explored a number of options – a couple of years ago, they had people pay for Times Select (and yes, I paid). I’m sure they’ve come to this after a lot of thought (I hope they have, although their decision to disable embeds gives me pause). To term paying for things online as old-school and therefore unacceptable is silly. And I, for one, am willing to pay.