The New York Times announced today that it intends to charge readers for frequent access to its website, starting in early 2011.
Starting in early 2011, visitors to NYTimes.com will get a certain number of articles free every month before being asked to pay a flat fee for unlimited access. Subscribers to the newspaper’s print edition will receive full access to the site without extra charge.
What exactly the NY Times considers “frequent,” and how much they will charge, not even the paper’s executives seem to know, but the move to squeeze subscription fees from online readers doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
Will it work? That is, will revenue from online subscribers substantially exceed the online advertising revenue lost due to the inevitable drop in page views? I dunno. The NY Times fills a kinda unique position in our media landscape as our nation’s undisputed paper of record. So, maybe.
But the big question for me is, successful or not, will this prove to be a viable business model that, say, the Seattle Times might follow in an effort to turn around its own declining financial prospects?
I don’t think so.
The Seattle Times simply does not play as vital and unique a role in our local community as their New York counterpart does nationally. While the NY Times consists almost entirely of original content from some of the best and most highly respected reporters and columnists in the nation, the Seattle Times relies heavily on the Associated Press and other newswires and syndication services to fill its pages. For example, two of the four articles on the front page of today’s dead-tree edition are newswire reprints, including an above-the-fold lead story culled from the pages of… the New York Times.
Why would I pay twice for the same story? Indeed, why would I pay at all for a newswire story I can read elsewhere for free?
Well, I might, because part of my schtick is critiquing the Seattle Times, but as an unrepentant news junkie, I’m the exception that proves the rule. Unless the news industry universally adopts the NY Times model, I just don’t see how dailies like the Seattle Times can demand a high enough flat-rate subscription fee to offset the inevitable loss of readership that would come from hiding their content behind a firewall.
Newspapers are kinda like information department stores, presenting a broad variety of content on a range of subjects and issues in one easy to consume package. But the hierarchy of the Internet is flat, and the barriers to entry relatively nonexistent in terms of capital and infrastructure investments, leaving publications like the Seattle Times vulnerable to specialized competitors.
In the old media technology, where folding a bunch of pages together into one convenient bundle was the most efficient means of distributing news and opinion, the Seattle Times merely needed to do everything well to fend off new competitors. But in the new media technology, being merely good is not good enough.
If The Stranger provides better coverage of the music and arts scene, and the neighborhood blogs provide better coverage of the neighborhoods, and Publicola provides more thorough coverage of Olympia, and HA provides more entertaining and relevant political commentary and analysis… what exactly is the economic incentive for consumers interested in those subjects to subscribe to the Seattle Times as a whole? Indeed, ironically, it is specialized news and opinion sites that have the more compelling argument for placing their content behind subscription firewalls, a model that has worked well for the Puget Sound Business Journal and other online trade publications.
I don’t mean to dis the valuable original reporting that the Seattle Times does produce, but I’m not sure there’s enough of it to make a flat-fee, all-you-can eat subscription a compelling product. I don’t subscribe to cable TV for the very same reason. Sure, there are networks I might purchase on an a la carte basis, were I given the option, but I’m not going to pay $60/month for 500 channels of stuff I’ll never watch. Especially not now, with so much equally compelling content available over the Internet.
No doubt Frank Blethen and his bean counters are encouraged by the NY Times pioneering effort, but they shouldn’t be. The Seattle Times simply is no NY Times, and I don’t see how the business model of one easily translates to the other.
I’m not sure what the solution is for the Seattle Times and other dailies. Hell, I’m not even sure there is one.