No need to climb the Paywall

Just had my bi-monthly look at Paul Krugman’s blog at the New York Times website. There are always at least a few insightful posts there, and each time I think that I should have a look more often – but then don’t. If I actually did, I guess I’d have to think about the NYT paywall.
This has a limit of 20 free articles per month. I’m not quite sure how a blog fits into that – presumably it would be page views here, not articles. This limit, however, only counts access via the NTY front page, or, I guess, bookmarks. Any access via links from third-party sites, such as search engine results, is free. (Since this differentiation depending on the source of the traffic needs some background scripting, surfing with a script blocker means that you can access the NYT website however much you want, minus scripted content.)
Access after you exceed the limit needs one of serveral subscription packages. These are priced according to whether you want to access the website via a dedicated app for the iPhone or a dedicated app for the iPad. Just buying web acess is not an option. Apart from this being a major case of iBlindness, the fact that access from iPhone and iPad needs to be bought accumulatively was almost universally ridiculed. The sources that I read expressed a general lack of understanding for the model.
I think that looking beyond the specific problems, such as the iBlindness and  accumulative access pricing, the NYT model shows some assumptions about the nature of newspapers on the web.

It first of all shows that the people at the NYT understand that they need to be part of the web. Unlike the other big “Times”, the Times of London, the NYT remains open to the web. When I link to an article, I can be sure that anybody following the link has access. It remains searchable. They are putting up the paywall not to seal themselved off from the rest of the internet, but in an attempt to extract money from just one of three groups of readers that they see.
The first group are the web-driven readers. They follow links, or search for something specific via a search engine. Charging for this is not feasible. Micropayments have been nothing more than an interesting concept since the inception of the commercial web, and anything else makes it too expensive, too complicated, or both. Nobody links to an article that you have to pay for reading, and people coming via a search engine just move on to the next result once the hit the payment form. The current model presents no problem for the web-driven readers.
The second group are casual readers, like me. You need to enable some access for these, or they will just turn away and go elsewhere. I did when the NYT charged specifically for their columnists. No Krugman for the entire time.
The third group that the NYT sees are the regular readers. These come to the NYT website because they value the totality of what is on offer there. To them the NYT is their major, or at least a major source of news. They bascially want an electronic version of the printed paper that they can just leaf through. (BTW: It is amazing how badly they are served by the current design of the website, which does not allow for any sequential reading.) It is this third group that the NYT is mainly interested in, and that they want to extract value from via subscriptions.
Their bet is that there is enough migration from the web-driven to the casual and on to the regular readers for this to establish a wide-enough base for a subscription model to be viable. If you take this to be a valid assumption then the current model makes sense in principle. Whether the current threshold of 20 articles a month is a valid differentiator between casual and regular readership is another question, but that is merely a matter of fine-tuning.

The second aspect is less clearly defined. Accessing the NYT’s content is priced according to means of access, with the ipad subscription being more expensive than the iphone one. The fact that web-only access seems not to be seen as an option that can be sold separately at may be testament to the fact that the NYT people cling to some sort of physical distribution model: instead of printed paper, the customer now has an iDevice that enables access. The ipad is seen as the more comfortable enabler of access, and thus priced higher. Enabling the enabler to actually access the content is then what you pay for. It is all very confused and confusing.  Why limit your prospective readership to owners of a certain brand of device?
A better differentiator would be to actually offer additional functionality to the subscriber. How about a second front page that you can personalize with your favourite bloggers and topics? How about a third one that lists all the NTY articles that your friends and people you follow have currently recommended through various social network channels? An Integrated dictionary? Automatic background searches for additional materials in the NYT archives to compile dossiers about your main topics of interest? These ar just some examples for things that don’t matter at all to the casual reader, but would serve to pull in the subscriber.
All of these could be implemented in a browser as well – elmininating the bad case of iBlindness. It would also mean that arbitrary cut-offs such as the 20 articles a month could be given up, since the subscription now offers more instead of just lifting a restriction.

In the end, it doesn’t matter to me. As far as the NYT, or any other newspaper is concerned, I firmly fall into the group of casual readers, with no chance of crossing over to a subscription. There are simply too many free sources of news out there. Additionally, my more specialized interests are poorly served by any mainstream newspaper inidivdually,  and by no single news source when taken as a whole. The NYT, and other newspapers can only lose me as a reader, not gain me as a subscriber.

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