What? Pay to Get the News?

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So what’s the New York Times worth to me? And how high are the stakes attached to the answers that I and millions others will give in coming weeks?

Are people ready and willing to pay to get stories from the Times? How about from other news organizations – the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, CNN, or whoever you turn to for information?

A long-awaited major moment is at hand for the news industry: The Times’ Web site is the premier American site for world and national news. And they’re about to start charging serious users for access. .

This is, in some ways, a great period to be a reporter for a major news organization. Readership is very strong, if you include both Internet readers and traditional print readers. The reach of a story is fabulous – a piece published in Milwaukee can be (and often is) read immediately on the other side of the globe.

But, of course, it is also an extremely threatening time for news organizations and reporters. The business model, so to speak, of conventional news media, especially large newspapers, is broken. With a few exceptions, all those readers on the Internet are getting the news for free.

No circulation revenue arises when I get on the New York Times Web site, which I do often. The huge cash cow of major newspapers, classified ads for homes, cars, jobs, and a million other things, has been almost totally replaced by free Internet sites such as Craig’s list. Major display advertising is a fraction of what it once was. Those ads you see on Web pages don’t bring in anywhere near the revenue that traditional advertising generated.

So the question that has been the focus of intense interest in the news industry has been how to get people to pay money for stories and other content on the Web in something that resembles the way the declining number of people pay for the newspaper when it is delivered to their door. How do you turn all those Web hits into cash?

People expect Internet news to be free and have generally been emphatic in holding on to that practice. Some previous efforts to get people to pay for news content, including the Times’ own “Times Select” effort of several years ago, have failed. People will simply go elsewhere or find ways around pay walls. There are a few exceptions, usually involving a particular niche (much of the Journal Sentinel’s coverage of the Green Bay Packers) or a highly-sought specific publication (the Wall Street Journal) where demand is so strong that people will pay.

Now comes the New York Times with a new plan:  As of March 31, people will be able to get glimpses of the news and a handful of stories (20 a month) for free. But broader access to the paper’s Web site will cost at least $15 every four weeks. That’s $195 a year.

Will a large enough number of people go along with this to make it work? If so, will that be a break through for other news organizations to start charging? If not, is there a fallback plan to keep the enormous Times’ news operation fueled? A step into a more solid future for major news organizations or another step on the path of decline? (A glance at some industry commentary offered both opinions.)

For me personally, I just don’t know. I like the NYT Web site. But $195 a year. I gotta think about that. Wonder what the Washington Post will do.

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One Response to “What? Pay to Get the News?”

  1. Aaron McCann Says:

    The one thing I wish the NYT would consider is a discounted subscription for students and others in academia. Perhaps this is on the table and I just haven’t seen it yet, but it seems strange that they wouldn’t offer some form of discount to this group that has always received discounted print subscriptions in the past. What better subgroup is there for developing loyal lifetime readers?

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