The New York Times Paywall: This Time Around, I’ll Buy

All around me are declarations of the upcoming NYT paywall as either a “fraught” decision that “won’t work” or a “big hedge” that, if it works, professional gruff and former coworker Jack Shafer will be “happy to call a success”.

I will see Jack and raise him a note of optimism, because despite being one of the cheapest digital bastards around — and I work each day strategizing how to turn people into the opposite of me, which would make me my own toughest target — I plan to drop some cash on the Times this time around.

The arguments against the paywall all make sense:

  • People will steal the article content and post it elsewhere! True!
  • People will delete their NYT cookies and use other tech workarounds to get more than 20 articles for free! Absolutely!
  • The pricing is horrible and confusing! Word!
  • Potential readers will hit the paywall and bail to free news sources! Many of them will!

But there are several factors that work in favor of the Times with this approach, unlike their previous TimesSelect fail:

  • It’s not just opinion like TimesSelect. As the saying goes, opinions are like assholes and all that. There are almost 7 billion people on this Earth who can digest information and come up with something to say about it, so I’m thinking that just about defines the idea of a commodity’s price approaching zero. The Times columnist page is prestigious, but where they really hit their core competency (to use douchey MBA language) is in the ground-level creation of news as the paper of record. (And yes, they’ve had mixed performance in the past decade in living up to that, but the brand is still there.) Everyone can read a Times article and react to it, but it’s damn hard work to go out there and generate that article in the first place, and the NYT is the dream job for those ground-level reporters who are able to do that. Like them or hate them, the NYT is the established brand for news for millions, and unlike a lot of other substitutes, it’s worth $15 per month to me keep reflexively reading the Times.

    And to promote the idea of the NYT as a high-quality, go-to island amidst a sea of information, I’ll also take this chance to bash the idea of citizen journalism. I recently partook in an instance of citizen journalism when I listened to an interview with Eric Avery on why he (again) left my favorite band, Jane’s Addiction. (The essence is that Perry Farrell is a self-glorifying dick, so not exactly something out of nowhere.) The interviewer from the forum gets big props for scoring this chat with the guy I consider the driving force of the band, but he put up an unedited video that is 16 segments long. That comes out to almost three hours — I love Jane’s and all, but amateur content producers should understand that editing can be OK!

  • Demographics. This hasn’t changed since TimesSelect, so perhaps I’m more aware of it because I now fit it better, but the Times‘s readership is high-income, generally more than 25 years old and educated. The huge majority are not music pirates who are going to pull the content and share it illegally under a “screw the man!” posture. The sense of entitlement is dead in most people once they reach 25 — or at least I very much hope that it is.

    A lot of digitally savvy folks tend to forget that they’re a tiny minority, and not everyone is like them — I would bet that your average Times reader is a lot more willing to pay $15 per month than to figure out how to alter their privacy settings and eliminate the necessary cookies, particularly once the arms race begins between the Times developers and those very few readers who do pursue workarounds.

  • Graduated pricing. When someone links to an article behind a paywall and I’m not prepared to hit that paywall, I usually get pissed. But when that happens 20 times in a month and I’m suddenly reminded, “Hey, you know you’ve done this a lot, maybe you might consider an end to your damn freeloading,” I’ll be more likely to pony up. Sure, the pricing is complicated and annoying right now, but the system hasn’t even rolled out yet and so there’s been no chance for course correction. Besides, soaking the best customers works for drug dealers, and plenty of us are information junkies.
  • Social links are still free. Based on my past digital-news jobs, I’m sure the NYT sees huge traffic spikes whenever it posts a story that gets people talking, and the Times tends to do this more than most. These days, that means Facebook and Twitter posts, and they were smart not to cut off this source of new readers. But if you like the site enough to read it 19 times in a month and still be willing to click for more? I’d wager you could be persuaded to pay.

If you traced my digital news consumption starting in college, it would consist of a small diet of initially web-friendly content producers, then a feast on way too many RSS feeds, then a move back to a focused group of content sites that do the best job of offering up clarity and intelligent insight that I can consistently access. My willingness to pay (hi, Prof. Ahuja!) is not infinite, but for the sites that I use the most, it’s there. I can count the Times among them, and I know there are millions like me, no matter how much tech-elite scoffing goes on.

As a former news guy, I really hope this works — but there’s also hard logic to think it will.

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One Response to “The New York Times Paywall: This Time Around, I’ll Buy”

  1. I basically agree with all this. I would not have paid for this 10 years ago, but three things have happened since then: (1) I’ve aged into the nytimes demographic (along with the corresponding increase in income, (2) the novelty of low quality free web crap has worn off, and (3) the pricing structure, while still kind of dumb, isn’t quite as absurd as before (I completely credit apple for this — they have led the way in charging for content on the Internet in a way that is not completely disrespectful to customers)

    Still, i will only get the $15 option because their ipad app sucks. Give me an app that doesn’t crash, has COMPLETE access to EVERYTHING on the website (including blogs and stuff that’s currently only available in flash), and I’ll reconsider.

    Posted by John | March 19th, 2011 at 1:17 am

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