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January 07, 2005

Paying for News Content

Ogged observes:

Unfogged: This would certainly change things.

The New York Times Co. is considering subscription fees to the online version of its flagship newspaper, which now is available for free....

It could be that free web news, like free music in Napster days, will have been a short-lived anomaly. That sucks, but I'm sympathetic to the news providers, because, honestly, do you even see the ads anymore? My eyes look right past them; I can't name a single ad I've seen online this week. I don't see an easy answer to this one.

You have to be of Financial Times or Wall Street Journal quality to be able to effectively charge for your online version. I pay for the online editions of the WSJ and the FT, and am happy. I pay for the online editions of the New Republic and Salon and am on the edge of quitting. The New York Times would rank lower on my scale of things worth spending money on...

Posted by DeLong at January 7, 2005 11:27 AM

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I loathe TNR at this point. Bienert's article, the Lieberman endorsement, that smart ass tone just outweights their good ones, like Judis.

But Salon has broken a lot of big stories over time, but they seem to slipping a bit too. Any examples you want to share?

Posted by: Samuel Knight at January 7, 2005 11:36 AM

Though we are not in New York, we are close to our university and there are few houses that do not have a delivered copy of the New York Times in the yard each morning. The Times is a treasure, not just for domestic or international political coverage which we can argue about in many ways, but for the Arts and Books and Science and Health and Technology and Business sections and much more.

Posted by: anne at January 7, 2005 11:53 AM

Does anyone read the ads in the paper though? The subscription fee may pay for the actual paper you hold and getting it to your door but I doubt it pays for much besides that. And one would think that after you decide to put yourself online, the big costs (storage, page designetc.) are fixed and marginal costs are near zero. The big difference is that marketers have data for online ads but not data for offline.

Posted by: Rob at January 7, 2005 11:58 AM

Quality is one thing, yes, but what about the elasticity of demand for the specific news that a paper like The Wall Street Journal offers? There are other business papers, and certainly, top newspapers like The New York Times have business sections, but out of the big five--The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal--only one of those five is primarily a business paper. If The New York Times started to charge, could could get a very similar product from The Washington Post's online site.

Posted by: Brian at January 7, 2005 11:58 AM

I would never read the NYT again. Post election 2000.. I've rarely read their crap anyway. I live in D.C... if the NYT starts charging money I'll just read WaPo instead. My work gives me a subsription to WSJ.. so I'm set anyway. Screw 'em. I'll read Krugman some other way...

Posted by: Tim at January 7, 2005 12:06 PM

I've been expecting this for a while. I'll gladly pay for the NYT, so long as: (1) they structure their pricing such that a graduate student can actually afford it, as for example the Economist has with their four-month, $29.95 academic e-subscriptions; and (2) they don't make me pay for one of those stupid replicas of the physical paper, which I don't want because they're impossible to read and fundamentally unsuited to the web environment.

The Times of London tried switching to a subscriber model about this time last year. But it was so awful -- you had to pay £199, or something along those lines, for a replica edition, even if you just wanted access to the website -- that they're back to open access.

Personally, I think the Economist and New Republic have come the closest to figuring out a sustainable electronic subscription model. (I don't subscribe to the WSJ, but everyone who does says good things...)

And finally, WHY does your comment system strip out my line-breaks? I'd quite like to be able to write in cohesive paragraphs.

Posted by: schwa at January 7, 2005 12:17 PM

Huh. All right then, it's just the comment preview which strips out the line breaks. Way to go, Movable Type.

Posted by: schwa at January 7, 2005 12:25 PM

I would pay a small fee for the NYT online, or frankly for any other decent print outlet's site, say WaPo or LAT. In the NY Times' case, it would make me feel better for cancelling my print edition subscription that I have had (in California) since 1982. Currently trying a print-free diet for a month (no Times, no WSJ), just to see if I can cope. So far so good.

Posted by: martin at January 7, 2005 12:40 PM

"...because, honestly, do you even see the ads anymore?"

Nope. Mozilla Firefox, the Adblock extension, and a couple minutes per regularly-visited site, and, quite literally, I don't see the ads. Sites that serve banner ads as graphics out of the same server and from the same directories as their regular content are harder to filter. I also have the perception that many pages load more quickly since I am not downloading the ads.

Posted by: Michael Cain at January 7, 2005 01:10 PM


Remember these words, phrases from the early days of the Internet: micro pay, tipping point, Chinese math, and trusted navigator.

The NYT or someone like it will survive and ultimately flourish on the Internet. The reason, as Andy Kessler says in Running Money, "a waterfall of demand." The NYTimes isn't worth the price at $1.00 a day, but 10 cents--that's another matter, especially when all that "Chinese Math" results in the publisher investing all the money pouring in into better writing and coverage.

You have seen the same ideas on campus when people talk about distance education. Someone is going to make it work, especially when the profits are re-invested, in part, into better research and better courses continue with each following version, as profits are invested and reinvested.

The rich will someday get very much richer someday on the Internet and they will do such by providing better content

Posted by: Moe Levine at January 7, 2005 01:25 PM

The problem for the Times (both) is that mainstream news is now free to obtain from websites like CNN and BBC. So all they can sell is opinion. Now people will pay for specialised opinion e.g. the Economist, but will they pay for general opinion when there's so much of the stuff floating freely around the web?

Posted by: giles at January 7, 2005 01:40 PM

We think that NYT on the web is well priced now. It certainly isn't worth very much more than they're presently charging. I'd rather subscribe to the columnists whom I like individually than pay the times as a whole, but I hate their sloppy reporting so much I think I rather do without the columnists than suffer the ignominy of paying for the reportage they are presently offering.

Posted by: Pudentila at January 7, 2005 01:47 PM

Right now Salon is offering a year of membership, at the regular price, only the $35 goes to tsunami relief.


Posted by: Sumana at January 7, 2005 02:07 PM

The free NY Times really offers very little that can't be had elsewhere on the web. Hard for me to see what this is going to accomplish, other than make them a positively marginal net presence.

Does anyone know how TNR's subscription-only policy is working out? I really find it difficult to believe that they're making enough money off the deal to justify the even smaller readership.

Posted by: sglover at January 7, 2005 02:35 PM

The New York Times is easily the finest publication on the Internet, and I am pleased to pay for a print edition which is simply easier to read thoroughly. The writing as a whole is not matched by any other publication.

Posted by: lise at January 7, 2005 02:40 PM

I'd gladly pay a buck or two per week to read Krugman's column, but how could I be assured that none of my money was going to David Brooks, or Judith Miller, or whatever hack they're going to replace Safire with?

Posted by: Kuas at January 7, 2005 02:43 PM

More and more websters are refusing to accept spy ware.

Posted by: ken melvin at January 7, 2005 03:29 PM

I really think the pricing is critical here. Online editions overwhelmingly tend to be read by people who would never subscribe to the dead tree edition because:
- they're only occasional readers;
- they're in a part of the world where you can't get a current issue (you can't buy today's NYT edition here in Australia); and/or
- they're too poor to spend money on luxuries.

My fear is not so much at the principle of charging for online access, but at the likely failure of paper-oriented managements to realise that online access differentially picks up marginal customers, and should thus have marginal rather than average cost pricing. Also they need to remember that expanding their readership raises the value of their brand even where it does not lead to immediate advertising sales.

This suggests online access should be very cheap indeed, but the absence of a good micro-pay system makes this imparactical. All of which suggests their best approach is free access, but under conditions which don't steal customers from the paper edition. A good approach might be to give free access to yesterday's and earlier editions but limit access to today's edition (the exact reverse of what some do now).

Posted by: derrida derider at January 7, 2005 03:42 PM

The New York Times has an internet readership which extends far beyond the Northeast, far beyond the paying customer base in North America and these individuals, individuals living in countries where the press is restricted and censored, will be hampered by a subscription policy.

As of the first of this year, I stopped purchasing the Sunday New York Times at $4.60/issue. (No home delivery in my area.) With Americans paying $55/month for cable television, $35/month for broadband connection, $40/month for cell phone, and so on, they drop subscriptions and newsstand purchases. I would wager the NYT has a wider customer base with a non-subscription online platform than they did with a subscription only. And, I suspect the WSJ is not the business model they should be emulating. More than likely, WSJ online readers are readers who are familiar with the print edition through their work.

Posted by: Camila at January 7, 2005 03:49 PM

I doubt deeply that the NYT will charge for the online version. As long as either WaPo or LAT stays free, a lot of people won't buy the subscription. And if those former NYT readers become, en masse, WaPo or LAT readers, we'll end up with a new "paper of record." And that's a lot to give up for very little increase in revenue.

Maybe if they were coming off of a string of reportorial successes. But right now (what with Judith Miller, et. al.) is probably not the best time for them to be challenging their readership over how much their service should be valued.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim at January 7, 2005 04:40 PM

Mediocre or not, I get a lot of news from there. It would be a pain to have to pay...

Posted by: s at January 7, 2005 05:43 PM

Something people keep forgetting as they wildly speculate about an Internet in which all the newspapers start charging is that, barring a massive upheaval in British government and society, the BBC's news website is always going to be free. It's an emergent property of their charter and they're very, very attached to the idea.

So there's always going to be that one piece of non-trivial competition from "free".

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at January 7, 2005 05:46 PM

True, Patrick, but let's face it: the BBC's coverage of the United States is Not Very Good. It's better than most foreign news services, but it's nowhere near as broad or deep as any U.S.-based outlet. And I rather suspect that's what most readers of the NYT's web edition are after. I suspect that most of the people who rely on the NYT (or CNN, or the LA Times, or pretty much any American news source except maybe the Christian Science Monitor and WSJ) for international news do so only because it's also their primary source of domestic news. It'll be the news-about-America market which drives these sorts of calculations, and the BBC website is simply not in the big leagues.

I think the point's a reasonable one -- as long as there's one good news source which is free, the others are going to have a hard time selling a pay-subscription model unless they're good enough, and their audience is affluent enough; I just don't think the BBC is the best example.

Posted by: schwa at January 7, 2005 06:23 PM

To Hell with the Times. As others have said, its product is not unique. In addition its smugness is irritating, its reportage is not demonstrably more accurate or more detailed than that of its non-Murdoch, non-Unification Church competitors, it cannot be called a paper of record until it no longer employs Judith Miller, and the crossword (already not free-as-in-beer) has not been the same since Maleska left (sorry, WS). Into the dustbin of history with them, I say.

Posted by: CD318 at January 7, 2005 06:26 PM

This is such a no-brainer, it's just silly. I don't pay for any online content and I think you are nuts to do so yourself. If the NYTimes goes pay-to-read, I'll stop visiting the Web site. Simple.

Fortunately for them, most people aren't like me. I'm not sure if that's hopeful or depressing.

Posted by: John H. Farr at January 7, 2005 06:38 PM

I wonder if the New York Times is already losing some of its influence because its articles expire from its web site after one week (unless you pay for access to older articles). That makes Times articles less than ideal for blogging or citing in Internet discussions. This makes my subscription to the printed edition of the Times less valuable to me.

Posted by: Kenneth Almquist at January 7, 2005 06:52 PM

One ad that I definitely saw was one that ran on the NYTimes site.

An ad for the movie I (heart) Huckabees, taking up practically the full right half of the page, of Naomi Watts in a bikini.

Didn't see the movie, or click on the ad, but it was quite distracting for the rather long period that it was in rotation on the site.

Posted by: Jon H at January 7, 2005 07:04 PM

A big mistake would be if they did the usual thing, and charged the usual print subscription price, or something on the same order as the regular subscription price.

If their subscription cost was, say, $10/year, that might work. I mean, good lord, look how much people pay for the deluge of crap that is cable TV!

Posted by: Jon H at January 7, 2005 07:09 PM

I am very attached to Salon and think its writers have done great work over the four years I've subscribed and so was really surprised to see Salon lumped to be dumped with TNR. Why? And since I discovered the magnificence that is the Brad de Long site through the linking of it by Salon, I feel somewhat...betrayed. They led me to you and you want to diss them and then leave them? Oww.

Posted by: Leslie at January 8, 2005 12:34 PM

WSJ can charge because so many of its subscribers are businesses. Individuals won't pay.

Posted by: jr at January 8, 2005 08:41 PM

I agree with Leslie above. I'm a paid Salon subscriber and really enjoy a lot of their material.

I prefer subscription models of support to ad models. I despise being constantly marketing to, and I'd far rather pay a clearly-delineated fee that goes to pay for the costs of producing content than to wade through promotional offers, integrated online ads, etc.

Without making predictions, I hope that more sites go to a pay model and that prices get extremely low, because the costs of distribution are both miniscule and subsidized by national goverments anyway. One of the barriers is still that many people are not comfortable with/do not have the means to pay for web items electronically, but that is getting lower. Right now most subscription sites charge fees that compromise between payers and non-payers; in a world where 99% of web users had complete security and confidence in paying for items online, I can easily imagine a million people paying <$5 per year for access to something like the NYT.

- Itea

Posted by: Itea at January 9, 2005 01:22 AM

Leslie wrote, "...and so was really surprised to see Salon lumped to be dumped with TNR."

Maybe because of their history of hiring right-wing hacks like David Horowitz and Andrew Sullivan?

Posted by: liberal at January 9, 2005 04:49 AM

derrida derider: A reasonably well-organized news archive is not the same as a collection of "old news". As facts (and value-added commentary) can be put into context only after the fact, and after some time, the archive is actually the much more valuable thing to protect than the relatively commodity current news.

A variation on your theme would be free access in a window of 1 or 2 to N days into the past, but maybe that's what you meant.

Posted by: cm at January 9, 2005 11:36 AM

One place that the NY Times is still unmatched is arts coverage, though that probably matters less to people outside the tri-state area. Getting the Times reviewer to your show is still one of the first steps to mainstream success in the arts in New York City, whatever that's worth.

Posted by: Elisabeth at January 11, 2005 02:15 PM

[another comment spam makes it through]

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