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Mar 11

The New York Times picket fence: who will pay?

The arrival of the New York Times metered paywall needs celebrating. It deserves that not because of its detailed merits or otherwise and least of all because I know it will succeed. I haven’t a clue how it will do. Neither has anyone else.

The welcome is for another go at experiment, another strand of spaghetti thrown at the wall to see if it sticks. Without live try-outs, no sustainable models for keeping journalism afloat will be found.

Given that we have to wait till the NYT announces some results or gives us clues by tweaking the price structure, there are only a few things to be said now plus, below, some links to the best stuff I’ve caught so far. In no particular order:

  • As a number of people have pointed out this isn’t really a paywall, more of a picket fence or a speed bump. Given how porous the proposed system is, it seems inevitable that the number of people consuming NYT material by some means will be many times the number subscribing. Wise observations here from Bill Grueskin (who worked at the always-paywalled Wall St Journal and who should know), particularly on a gap in the fence few people had noticed.
  • How will subscribers feel about this? Not all economic behaviour is strictly rational. Will the subscribers resentfully reflect that that they are the most loyal readers of the Times and they’re the ones who end up getting to pay? Or will they bask in the glow of feeling part of a small and select club?
  • The pricing is steep, relative to the few other experiments in the field and to prevailing wisdom about what the market will stand. If you have the appetite for guesstimation in detail, dive into this exhaustive takeout on the numbers by Ken Doctor.
  • There’s more here from the Monday’s Note’s Frederic Filloux who crushingly describes the scheme announced as like the French tax system: “expensive, utterly complicated, disconnected from the reality and designed to be bypassed.” Unlike most commentators, Filloux actually has an alternative: lower the prices and, above all, simplify. The lesson of the web age is that simplicity or “ease of do” wins out.
  • If Paul Krugman is any guide, some of NYT’s columnists are barely able to take the scheme seriously. He’s advising readers to vote with their feet and jump the fence.
  • Many writers (including Paul Bradshaw here) have welcome the fact that users coming via social networks don’t pay. I can see how the NYT wanted to walk a fine line between remaining connected and open while charging those who can stand it – and decided to give Facebookers and others a break. Isn’t that going to mean that the paying subscribers tend to be old? That doesn’t suggest that lucrative ads can be aimed at them.
  • The NYT’s fine technology writer David Pogue wrote a pained tweet a few hours after the announcement admitting that most of the comment he was seeing was negative. “Well what would YOU do?” he asked in irritation. That remains the best question.
  • If you believe that online advertising will eventually come to the financial rescue, you can afford to ignore charging experiments. But except in a few specialist cases, advertising income as a cross-subsidy for news won’t work for one simple reason: the connection between supply, demand and price. The price of print advertising in its heyday was high because the space in which it could appear was rationed: there was limit to the number of pages presses could print or readers could handle. On the web, there is no such constraint. Hence the price of ad space may one day rise, but it will never rise so high. And for that reason alone, experiments with charging are worth applauding.

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