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09 Jul, 2009 – 5 comments

why charging for digital news baffles me

NYTimes asks for funny money

According to Bloomberg, The NYTimes is currently surveying their readers about charging for monthly access to – $2.50 for subscribers and $5 for everyone else.

In case you were living under a rock – the Times tried charging for content already – they dubbed it Times Select. Users paid $7.95 a month or $49.95 per year. Before ending Times Select, the number of Web-only subscribers fell to just over 221,000 in June 2007, down from more than 224,000 in April 2007.

Wired put those numbers in perspective, “But that was then: Way before the global recession, when the New York Times Co was worth four times what it is today, wasn’t selling assets and cutting its payroll, the advertising market hadn’t gone into freefall (the industry has lost more than $11 billion in ad sales since 2005) and Google wasn’t the enemy.”

This was also before independent publishers like the Huffington Post came of age.

Many of the op-eds I’ve read, such as this one from CNN Money, argue a NYTimes subscription model could accrue up to 750,000 subscribers – but that seems fanciful when comparing yesterday’s stats to today’s reality. Generally, these pie in the sky figures seem to risk the NYTimes brand on a shaky bet. The Times only has approximately 850,000 print subs, by the way (from the CNN Money article).

Beyond these foggy figures, charging for digital news has never made much sense to me. News is too universal. Sure, outlets can be scooped, but we live in the age of the cascade, where information disseminates, spreads, and ricochets in moments. Restricting access to this content will only hinder its ability to be spread, and as Henry puts it, “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.”

I have no doubt that if the Times did begin charging for content, some would pay. But again, living in our digital age, we have to also take in account the subscribers’ ability to spread that information, themselves. Imagine, a story is broken by the Times, Jason Kottke reads it through his subscription, and writes a quick blog post on the subject – which is immediately more spreadable than the original story. Or the Times breaks a story, it surges on the web, and CNN interviews the journalist or subjects of the story which only creates free, spreadable, content to compete with the original ‘premium’ and static text.

Pay models only inhibit the creation and transaction of social currency (which is more critical to a web business than a CPM rate).

Pay models like the one suggested by the Times, on their own, will only sustain themselves on a large scale for as long as it takes for their users to learn a new behavior and begin consuming content from other sources and move on.

But beyond pay models, why is it that the news business is so myopically focused on charging for the story itself? The people willing to pay the $2.50, or the $5.00, or the $7.95 aren’t only fans of the NYTimes, they’re fans of journalism and the news itself – selling them only bits of the news in digital text form is a gross undersell. Sell the news, in any form, in any medium, from any source, from any language, and sell what it means beyond the immediate news cycle. Build the apps, build the devices, build the future of news consumption. Put your crowd to use and sell its wisdom. Ultimately, there’s almost nothing the true news fan won’t consume if its good.