Newspapers got off on the wrong foot when they started publishing on the Web, by giving away what was valuable on the newsstand, and charging for last year’s fishwrap. That is, they gave away the news and charged for the olds.
This was understandable, because the papers wanted to participate in this new Web thing, which was very live and now and all that; and the Joneses they needed to keep up with were mostly doing the same thing. And, since selling archives had been a business all along — though not a very big one — they stuck with charging $2.95 or $3.95 for, say, a sports story from 1973.
Now the big papers, led by the The New York Times, are charging for at least some of the news in their digital versions, but also still charging for the old stuff. So they’re not quite charging for the news and giving away the olds (as I recommended back in 2006), but they seem to be moving slowly in that direction. More about that later. What I’d rather talk about first is their bait-and-switch game. It’s not bait-and-switch by the letter of the law, but the spirit is there, because the true costs are hidden.
Today, for example, the Timesannounced it will be cutting in half the number of articles readers on the Web can view for free in a given month, starting on April Fools Day. The old number was twenty. The new one is ten. Specifics for non-subscribers:
Get 10 articles each month on NYTimes.com, as well as access to the home page, section fronts, blog fronts and classifieds.
Articles, blog posts, slide shows, video and other multimedia will continue to count against your free monthly limit.
If you’ve already read your 10 free articles, you can still read our content through links from Facebook, Twitter, search engines and blogs.
Digital subscribers will —
Enjoy unlimited access to the full range of reporting from the world’s most respected journalists in their fields.
No limit on the number of articles, videos, blogs and more on your computer, smartphone or tablet.
Access to 100 Archive articles every four weeks.
Access to Election 2012, our exclusive politics app for iPhone and Android as well as The Collection, our fashion app for iPad — depending on the subscription you choose.
Home subscribers get free digital access.
The boldest print on that same page says “pay just 99¢ for your first 4 weeks.” That’s your bait. Below that it says “subscription options,” which links to this page here. Nowhere on either page does it say what happens after those first four weeks. For that info you need to select a button next to one of the three 99¢ choices, then click on the “GET UNLIMITED ACCESS” button. This takes you to the order page where you enter your credit card info. There it also says,
TRY IT TODAY FOR JUST $0.99 NYTimes: All Digital Access Unlimited access to NYTimes.com, and the NYTimes smartphone and tablet apps.* $0.99 for your first 4 weeks ($8.75 / week thereafter)
The asterisk is unpacked at the bottom of the page, where the it says,
Your order (applicable taxes may be added)
First 4 Weeks $0.99
Thereafter $35.00 every 4 weeks
So the real price is about $455 per year, after that first month. (Math: $8.75 x 52 weeks.) It’s an old game, and lots of sellers play it, but it’s still icky. If the Times is bold enough to be blunt about the value it’s subtracting from its free product, why not be bold enough to say the price goes up $35.01 after the first $.99?
Maybe because they’ve had that same pitch for awhile, and it’s working fine. In this Poynter story, Andrew Beaujon writes, “The New York Times Media Group says it has ‘approximately 454,000 paid subscribers’ to its digital products.” That comes to about $206,570,000 per year, after the first month. Pretty good. I have no problem with that, if the market bears the cost, which it seems to be doing. And maybe now more subscribers will get tired of being cut off after 10 views, or using multiple browsers to get around the limit a bit.
But why keep charging for the old stuff — especially the really old stuff? Wouldn’t it be a Good Thing make all of it easily reachable?
— 1923–1986: Your digital subscription includes 100 archive articles every four weeks in this date range (from January 1, 1923 through December 31, 1986). After you’ve reached the 100-article limit for the month, articles from 1923 through 1986 are $3.95 each.
— Pre-1923 and post-1986: Articles published before January 1, 1923 or after December 31, 1986 are free with your digital subscription and are not limited in any way.
I don’t know how much the Times makes on $3.95/article for the 1923-1986 time frame, but I suspect it’s not much. Why not make everything before (pick a date) free, each with a permanent link? This would throw off many scholastic, cultural and economic benefits. On the economic front, it would draw more inbound traffic to the Times‘ site, with lots of opportunities to advertise to visitors. In fact, I’ll bet the paper would make more off advertising to traffic arriving at archived articles than it makes off those $3.95 purchases.
But, maybe I’m wrong. Corrections welcome.
In any case, I’m not yet in the market. I love the Times, and often buy it on the newsstand. But $455 per year is steep for me. Plus, I’m already paying the Times‘ parent company for my printed copies of the Boston Globe. I’d like to read the digital edition of that too, because it’s free for print subscribers; but the login/password thing has yet to work for me.
Off the top of my head, here are some other paid subscriptions around here:
The Wall Street Journal (both print and online)
The New Yorker
Linux Journal (which I get free, actually, because I write for it)
All but The Sun have digital editions, and I read those as well. The only one I don’t read digitally, so far, is the Globe. I’ll try to fix that again tomorrow and see where it goes. I’ll let you know.
Meanwhile, I urge all those pubs to make the old stuff free on the open Web, while we still have one. It’ll help.