Saturday, January 08, 2005

The New York Times floats the idea of becoming a for-pay web site and Marcia is upset (I don't blame her)

Marcia's upset and I don't blame her.

She e-mailed about two stories. (I believe she saw them on Poynter Online -- Romensko,, because that's where I saw them.)

What's going on?

From Reuters (

The New York Times Co. (NYT.N: Quote, Profile, Research) is considering subscription fees to the online version of its flagship newspaper, which now is available for free, but it has no immediate plans to do so, the company said on Friday.
One of the paper's biggest rivals, Dow Jones & Co. Inc.'s (DJ.N:
Quote, Profile, Research) Wall Street Journal, charges for its online edition. A New York Times spokeswoman said the company is reviewing whether it should make any business changes to the online version but that no shifts were imminent.
"We are reviewing the site to see whether or not there would be any areas where we should change the business model," said the spokeswoman, Catherine Mathis, adding: "This is not new. We've been discussing this for some time."
According to the upcoming issue of BusinessWeek magazine, whose cover story focuses on The New York Times Co., an internal debate has been raging at the newspaper over whether its online edition, which had about 18.5 million unique monthly visitors as of November, should adopt a subscription fee.
N.Y. Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was quoted in the article as saying: "It gets to the issue of how comfortable are we training a generation of readers to get quality information for free. That is troubling."

That's troubling?

Marcia: "They're already trying to install two tracking devices on my computer everytime I visit their web site and now they're wanting to charge me for it?"

[Note, something's attempting to install. I have no idea what it is. One is called "Double Ads" or something like that. But Marcia and the others who pointed that out last week or the week before are correct that a visit to the Times web site results in an attempt to install something.]

First, it's not surprising that they want to charge, greed's a basic value. And we'll pick up on the greed in a moment.

But the reality is that a lot of "free" sites will probably become view-for-fee in the future. The Christian Science Monitor had an online survey (this summer?) asking visitors whether or not they'd be willing to pay for some content.

I am a regular visitor to BuzzFlash. And a year ago, I wondered what would happen to the web if and when the dailies moved to fee-to-read status?

They'd be the least effected because they have a variety of features. For instance, we've
linked to their interviews (and interview archives) and to columns exclusive to BuzzFlash (like Maureen Farrell's) and to their editorials (I'll check later for their latest one). They produce exclusive content. But what happens when and if the dailies all begin charging? I'm sure that BuzzFlash has thought about that and have a plan for if that happens. (I believe they've already announced that they will be increasing their exclusive content. The 20 editorials, one each day, leading up to the inauguration may be a part of that.)

But it will change the web if the dailies start charging.

How will it change this site? I already subscribe to the Times so we'll continue to quote and note. Unless I cancel my subscription (which is always a possibility). But in that case, we'll move on and focus on another paper. I've stayed with the Times despite any shortcomings due to the international coverage and the editorials. While every editorial does not reflect my personal opinion, most of them are are close to, or approach, my own personal beliefs and I can't see paying money for a paper whose editorial board is in direct opposition with every personal belief I hold.

But let's talk about greed for a moment.

The New York Times, USA Today and the Wall St. Journal have the largest print circulation in the country. (Wall St. Journal may, at some point, be asked to explain whether or not their circulation figures include papers never read but dropped off at hotels? Ones that are disposed of unread at the end of the day by hotel staff. Four of you e-mailed about that, four who work at hotels, and I did follow up on that with two visits to hotels where I asked the night staff what was done with the large stack of Wall St. Journals that remained in the lobby apparently unread.) (If this is an issue the Wall St. Journal wants to pursue -- whether or not the papers are being read -- the two hotels I visited were part of the Marriott chain.)

At a time when many papers have seen huge losses in circulation, the Times has maintained their position as one of the top three. (The largest circulation is Wall St. Journal, then USA Today, then the Times, if I remember the last round of figures correctly.)

They're being short sighted if they fail to grasp that the net has impacted their circulation. I read the Times in college. I've lived in a variety of areas, many of which the paper does not service. My most recent move resulted in an area that the paper does service so I can subscribe. But when I wasn't able to subscribe, I did visit the web site.

That kept me interested in the paper and it does the same thing for many people. It also increases the word of the mouth on the paper (good and bad).

The Times should throw out their greed and think about the fact that the paper's maintained it's prominence by being available online. (Though not all articles are available online. Reading the print edition of the business section on Sundays, I've noted articles that I've wanted to send to friends. When I got online, they weren't available.) If they move to a for-pay site, they better be prepared for a huge drop off not only in terms of visits but in terms of prestige.

Marcia: "Yes, my local papers carries two or more stories from NYT each day. But most people don't notice that byline. When I, or one of my co-workers, am online at the NYT we're reading it and it's getting credit for the stories it publishes in a way that doesn't happen with syndicated stories. We know we're at NYT and we know we're reading NYT."

It's advertising for the paper. There are many people who've written this site that they never considered subscribing to the Times until they started visiting the web site online. (All e-mails to this site are deleted. If it's something you want to be quoted on, I print up the e-mail and then delete it after you have been quoted -- similar to a good library's policy on purging records immediately. I do not keep physical copies of them after they're quoted in an entry. Point, I can't cite those of you who have written in the past that now subscribe to the Times because of the web site, sorry.)

It's free and it's free publicity. At a time when many "big time" papers have lost their prominence, the Times has continued to be in the forefront. The web site has a great deal to do with that.

Do they lose money on it? I don't see how. They're advertising on the site and that should cover the people who are reading for free. (And, again, there are Common Ills members who've cited the Times web site as the reason they ended up subscribing.)

Take away your web visits and you may still have an article that you post via yahoo or some other service, but you won't be getting the credit you get when someone's reading it at your site. It will be talked about as: "Did you see that story on Yahoo?"

I won't be at all surprised if greed wins out. But the Times needs to think seriously about what's kept them prominent. There online site has helped them continue to be talked of in ways that becoming a for-pay medium will not.

Sulzberger worries about the training of future readers. He should worry more about the present of the paper.

We have three members of The Common Ills who've written in that they are going to start subscribing. Two had mentioned their locations so in my reply, I noted that unless they planned to have it mailed to them, they weren't going to be able to get the paper. (The third e-mailed me back that they couldn't believe it but the paper didn't deliver in their area despite the fact that it was sold at stores in their area.) That's something Sulzberger should worry about right now, not in the future, right now.

How many readers are you losing because your paper's not availble in their areas as a subscription? One reader lives right next to a book store that gets the paper every day but he's not able to subscribe because you don't have delivery in his area. That makes sense how? The person delivering to the bookstore goes right past his apartment. How is this making sense?

If Sulzberger wants to offer that the paper's available at the book store, he's missing the point that most people already know, just because a store carries it, doesn't mean they'll have it when you get there.

Friday's paper circulated around the office and never made it back to me. When I got home and realized I didn't have it (and needed it to note the tsunami coverage), I was faced with what many people are dealing with (a problem Sulzberger may be unaware of): where am I going to get a copy?

It's Friday evening. I have five options for purchasing the Times all within a block of me in different directions. (If I'm willing to go further, I've got many more options.) I know four are sold out because they always are long before nine in the morning. So I call the bookstore a block in front of me and ask if they have any copies of Friday's paper left. "Yes." Will they hold a copy and I'll come right over? "Oh, there's no need for that, we've got tons." Tons? Tons is actually one. I'm glad I didn't wait (experience had taught me not to).

So if Sulzberger is under the impression that the Times is reaching everyone in an area that it's stocked in, he needs to rethink that.

Eli has written about purchasing the Times (in a very funny e-mail that I still remember). He has to make sure he's out the door at 6:30 to pick up a copy because they're all gone by seven. If it's a day that he's feeling under the weather (he just turned 72 and we congratulate him on that), he knows he'll have to miss out on the print edition of the paper.

This is an issue I'd think the Times would be better off addressing, making sure that they're adequately servicing the areas where people are willing to pay for the paper. That might mean doing a better job of pushing stores, who regularly sell out, to increase the amount of copies they carry. Maybe there's some sort of option they could propose to retailers where, when they think it's a big news day and a subject that people will be especially interested in, they increase the amount they drop off automatically? That might mean expanding the delivery areas. (I can think of no logic behind the decision to deliver to a book store daily but to ignore the apartment complex right next to it. You're already paying transportation costs to get the paper to the book store.)

I don't know. I'm not in the publishing business. I do know that people regularly complain about the fact that, if they're not at a store when the paper gets delivered (or at a store when it first opens -- if it opens later in the day), they can't get a copy of the New York Times.

As the publisher of the paper (and from the family that has long published the paper), I doubt
Sulzberger has very often (if ever) found himself in the position of wanting a copy of the day's paper but being unable to get one. Many of the rest of us have been in that position.

Seems to me that when people willing to pay for it can't because it's not available (due to the area not being serviced or due to the edition regularly selling out) that's something you
examine before you focus on should-we-drive-off-our-online-traffic-by-becoming-a

[Note: This post has been corrected of the errors that Shirley caught. Thank you Shirley, you work so hard to make us look like better spellers and better grammarians.]