The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

The New York Times’s Big Bet

with 3 comments

The New York Times has been on my mind for years. The long windup to the paywall that’s coming on March 28 focused my attention, but somehow the announcement today still stunned me.

No matter how I looked at the situation over the years, I thought that the Times was the most likely survivor in the contest among an unruly group of competitors, but regrettably the route the paper chose is not the way to do it.

Its price is too high. Its competition is too stiff. Its hold on the readers too tenuous.

As commercial interests tighten their hold on the Internet, the competition for attention and for users — customers, who are readers for the newspapers — grows fierce. I have no sense that anyone in the news business really appreciates the nature of this competition.

Television and the suburbs killed off most of the street-level competition in the business. There were exceptions in places, but think of the Times. I’m not old enough to have read the New York Herald-Tribune, which was competition 50 years ago. That leaves the Times and a couple of tabloids that do such different things.

There are no geographical boundaries on the Internet to protect declining news operations. The Times is not only competing against the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and other American papers, it’s got to deal the BBC, the Guardian and other news from the U.K., big English language organizations in the Middle East, like Al Jazeera, and Asia. And the TV stations. And the wire services that in the past could only be found in newspapers.

And that’s for news. The Times is betting that for $18.75 a month ($15 every four weeks, average of $18.75 a month) readers will be content with Times gossip and Times fashion and Times style over thousands of free web sites.

The Times does have its reputation. What’s it worth?

I worked in the news business for almost 30 years, the last 10 at the Times. The news business is very insular. The reporters and editors get very little feedback from the world outside. To measure the value of stories, reporters look at the stories in other newspapers, and they listen to what the people they write about say.

My first-hand experience convinced me that the mention of Times employment works like magic at parties. As a copy-editor (a headline writer and the last reader for coherence and completeness before a story is printed), I wasn’t very far up the food chain. Top reporters and columnists and masthead editors get some serious fawning. They’re only human and I can see that they get the idea that $18.75 is cheap.

Still, some people read the Times, they buy the paper copy and they look at it on the web. Businesses advertise in the paper Times and on the web. Ultimately, it’s a game of numbers. Will the page views be sufficient for the advertisers? Will the subscribers pay up enough to shore up the bottom line? How far will reputation and cachet carry them?

The prospects don’t look good when you read the discussion of the subscription plan on the Slashdot web site.

And you might be curious to see my earlier attempt at blogging, keeping a diary of sorts on what I read in the Times for several weeks, beginning late in January.

The bottom line of that exercise is that reading the times every day got me down. Some of it was great, but some was grating. In any case it gave me many more words than I needed and not enough of the information I desired. I halted it early, and turned to my effort here, not bounded by geography. I read stuff from all over.

About the Times and me now, I think that 20 stories a month may very well be more than enough.


Written by theunbiasedeye

March 17, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Posted in Business, Media

3 Responses

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  1. In my 6 years in Japan, where you might think I would need US news, I have not read the times once. I get my news from the (free) NBC nightly news video podcast, the (free) various NPR and APM audio podcasts, the (free) various more specific news feeds that appeal to me aggregated by Google Reader, and Japanese news. I like and trust the times, but haven't found a need for it.

    Fugu Tabetai

    March 17, 2011 at 10:21 pm

  2. I think this change will be a success, in terms of the extra subscription revenue being much larger than the loss of ad revenue from the small fraction of people who are current heavy users who won't subscribe. I don't think these people are big ad-clickers — those who mainly visit the Times via shared links are.

    The Times is really only dipping their toe in, a much smarter approach than Murdoch's paybunkers. But they'll boil us frogs eventually.

    Mark Reginald James

    March 18, 2011 at 10:22 am

  3. The boiling (or is it a weaning) continues:

    Mark James

    March 20, 2012 at 4:56 pm

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