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Photography, notes, commentary and much more from former Reporter Online Editor Chris Stanley.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Is your NYT story 20-worthy?

A few weeks ago, the New York Times stunned nobody (this had been discussed for years) by invoking a 'pay wall' on their web site. Hoping that readers will happily fork over money to read stories that have been free (and available in many places on the Internet) for many years, they came up with this compromise: We'll give you twenty free stories a month, then you have to pay.

In theory this sounds like a great way to make everybody happy - they get some revenue, readers still get some free content.

The real question is whether the loss of advertising revenue from the decreased number of page views (currently estimated between 5 and 15 percent) will be made up in subscription fees. That number might not sound like a lot, but when you're dealing in millions of hits, it can really add up (sorry for the pun).

So the dilemma for those who read the NYT (which I have since I was a kid) and are not willing to part with cash because, well, we're a NYT story 20-worthy?

A friend caught me reading a NYT story on their computer the other day...oops, that's 19 left. Sorry.

An update on the nuclear mess in Japan? Pass. Available elsewhere (hello BBC, Reuters and many, many others).

An op-ed piece about the deficit? Pass (hello Economist and many, many others).

Yet another story on how great Apple products are? Pass. Tired of this publicity machine.

How about a story on Barry Bonds trouble with steroids? Been there, done that (hello ESPN, Baseball Weekly, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, SFGate and many, many others).

Movie reviews? Pass. IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, IndieWire, IFC, and many, many others.

Now don't get me wrong...the New York Times didn't get to be one of the greatest news sources in the world by imitating others with second-rate second-day (or second-hour) coverage. Despite some credibility problems and newsroom cutbacks over the past few years, they still lead the way in quality journalism that matters and are an important part of our American democracy.

The problem isn't their coverage. This story about the economy, this story about the harmful effects of sugar or this story about school reform might be 20-worthy. They are unique and important.

But as I cruise the Internet each day, I'll pass by all those other, less unique NYT stories and seek them out on other sites. Who knows, I might like the coverage on other sites better and find myself going there first. The New York Times on a pay wall is like a Ferrari that only comes with ten gallons of gas - sure, it's fun for a while, but I'd rather take a slower but longer drive.

As to whether people might just get used to paying, some will. But unless every credible news site in the world moves to the same pay wall model, which I don't see happening, it will only be successful for the most specialized information and audience (such as targeted business reports).

My family paid for NYT subscriptions for years, as well as subscriptions to local newspapers. So why should I expect to get the same information for free now? Remember, much of what a subscription fee pays for is the printed product and delivery. The real revenue is in the advertising, which is still delivered on the Internet. The amount of digital revenue still doesn't match that of the printed product, but that is the challenge.

Back when newspapers only had to compete with each other, or maybe TV and radio to an extent, the subscription model made sense. But now the market has changed. I enjoy getting news from many sources, but I couldn't afford to purchase subscriptions to every one of them if they went behind pay walls. I'd simply look elsewhere for the information.

This isn't about what people should do or support, but rather the realities of the Internet and capitalism. Unless newspapers want to start holding beg-a-thons like public radio, they need to find a revenue stream that works in the real world. So far, the numbers on the pay wall experiment are not encouraging.

Good luck, NYT. I hope you find something that works. Until then, I'll keep searching for those 20-worthy stories.


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