Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

Times chose quick bucks over a lasting audience

If you read here yesterday – or just about any other journalism blog online – you know about the New York Times‘ plan to charge for online content beginning in 2011.

The reaction in my own newsroom has largely been one of relief. Most of the journalists I work with are less experienced with the expectations of the online audience and are, understandably, very protective of their work. Many have been arguing with me for years that we shouldn’t just “give our content away for free online” (even though we’ve essentially been giving it away for free in print since the beginning of newspapers).

It’s a short-sighted philosophy that is borne out of the naivete from years or working in that bygone era where news was a monopoly. It isn’t anymore – not even close – and online readers care less than they ever did about who writes the news they read (or why).

Felix Salmon at Reuters really underscores the glaring truth behind the NYT’s charge plan, saying it is an act of desperation from a company that still believes it is big enough to matter more to readers than a website that doesn’t charge for content.

“This is, of course, exactly the approach that the NYT’s management would take if it felt that it was managing a company in terminal decline, and wanted to squeeze as many dollars out of it as possible before it dies. Successful media companies go after audience first, and then watch revenues follow; failing ones alienate their audience in an attempt to maximize short-term revenues.”

The fact of the matter is that any sort of pay wall will inevitably alienate a core of online readers, particularly those without any real sense of loyalty to a particular news source. Worse yet, this audience is not only a primary audience we hope to keep around in the future, it is also a very, very valuable audience to advertisers.

Advertising Age noted yesterday that the heaviest Times Online users, those reportedly about to start getting charged, are the last ones any site wants to drive away because they are attractive to advertisers. The most frequent online readers are also the ones we as websites know the most about thanks to our site analytics.

Unlike our print readership, we can know without doubt where our online readers come from, what technology they use, what time of day they are online and, most importantly, we can piece together what they like based on the story sets they choose.

In this plan, the Times is giving up on one potential source of long-term revenue and a chance to build audience for a quick make-a-buck scheme that could be very detrimental in the long run.

And another thing to consider is just how many subscribers does the Times think it will gain in the online only space? Last week, Alan Mutter analyzed a survey that compared the number of  print subscribers who subscribe online at news sites with pay walls or e-editions. It turns out only 2.4% of those who are loyal enough to buy a paper are also willing to pay to read exclusive content online.

While I’m not sure this is a very fair indication of overall online subscription adoption, it is alarming to see that print subscribers, who we likely assumed would be the first to pay online, are not so eager to shell out money for online content. Once the print audience declines to a sliver, what does this say for the future of the subscription?

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2 Comments

  1. shafqat

    Great post – I agree that this seems like a shortsighted move, especially given the previous failure of Times Select. As for subscriber numbers, here is my take: http://blog.newscred.com/?p=226.

    One question I had – you mention that the bulk of news site's visitors don't have loyalty. I agree with you there. But then you mention “a primary audience we hope to keep around in the future” and “very, very valuable audience to advertisers.” While I agree these users provide a lot of pageviews, aren't the most valuable users the core users who *are* loyal and who you have more information about (i.e. demographic details provided during registration)?

    • The most valuable users are those who keep coming back to a site, sure, though not necessarily those who will register or pay. One doesn't have to register to give the critical info advertisers wants, they just need to be tracked across a website to see their interests.

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