Breaking News: NY Times to charge for access???

This morning I received a “breaking news email” from the New York Times that the New York Times had decided to start charging for access in 2011. I really don’t understand why they would send a breaking news email over this news. First, everyone else had been reporting the Times decision for a couple of days and second it’s not newsworthy enough to disturb me with an email or text.

Outside of the fact that it’s not breaking news, the NY Times has decided to try out the middle ground in the payment wall debate, again. Last time with Times Select they hid their “premium” content from those who didn’t want to pay. This time they are going to ask the power users who access their web site more frequently to pay. Unfortunately, they aren’t ready to release simple details about the plan so we really can’t make a judgement call on it.

It would be nice to know how much is frequent? How many article can I access before I have to pay? How much will I have to pay? Then maybe we can make some comparisons to how much they are making on advertising revenue versus how much they will make for charging for access.

You think if they were sending a news alert about charging in 2011, they could have at least gotten the full story from their bosses.

When is paid content successful?

What metrics do you use to measure the success of a newspaper web site switching to a paid content model? Specifically, I’m thinking about how will Stephens Media know if their switch to a paid content model for the Pine Bluff Commercial? Here’s the metrics I think a site switching to a paid content model would have to use.

  • Paid Subscribers both online and in print – To justify paid content model you must show an increase in print newspaper subscriptions because the reason you switched to a paid model was to stop the cannibalization of your print subscribers by your free online site. Of course most studies show that the revenue generated from paid online subscribers will barely cover the cost of running the website.
  • Web Site Visitors – Nope. You can keep measuring your web site visitors if you want to, but the dropoff from when it was free will be so discouraging you might change your mind and open it up again.
  • Web Display Ad Revenue – Strike Two. Won’t work. You just killed your audience with the paid wall. Any advertiser who runs on your site behind the pay wall doesn’t know what they’re doing.
  • Online Classified Revenue – Strike Three. This isn’t working for many newspapers anymore, but if you’ve killed your audience then who will pay to get their classifieds seen online by nobody.

So, the only real workable metric is an increase in paid print subscribers. That’s right a continual increase. If you only slow your decrease, then you’ve just slowed the print newspaper death spiral and given yourself another year or two until the presses stop running.

Is Google the newspaper’s friend?

Another side of this whole paid content debate is the concept that Google is stealing the newspapers content and is evil.  Pretty much anyone who is out there advocating a pay wall for newspapers stories is also a proponent of keeping Google away from their content. The funny thing is the opposite is true. If you want more traffic on your web site and more people reading your news stories, then Google is your friend. Google probably sends more traffic to your news site than any other source.

The Guardian has an interesting look at this debate  pitting the NY Times Maureen Dowd against Jeff Jarvis examining whether Google is friend or foe.

Dowd says Google has hijacked journalism.  “Google is in a battle royal over whether it has the right to profit so profligately from content at a time when journalism is in such jeopardy. Robert Thomson, the editor of the Wall Street Journal, denounced websites like Google as “tapeworms”.”

Jarvis on the other hand has faced the facts. “I had been naively thinking – hoping – that there would be an orderly transfer of power, print to digital, and that many of the incumbents would survive and some might lead the transition. With some exceptions, I no longer believe that.”

Another paid content model

Mitch (see comment) sent me a Business Week article this week about the latest attempt to charge for online content fostered by Steven Brill.  He’s proposing creating a consortium of a lot of different content providers that the reader would pay a subscription fee to access the content. I really don’t believe charging for online content will work in most circumstances, because readers will seek out the free content somewhere else and in most cases advertising models on free content will generate more revenue than subscriptions because of the higher traffic generated on the free content models.

But besides what I think, there’s a lot of buzz around . Here’s a couple of analysis of Brill’s model that makes sense to me.