Abate and switch

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 Times announced 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 storyAndrew 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?

Well, they do, to some degree. Here are the details from the Times‘ digital archive page:

Accessing and Purchasing Articles

Digital Subscribers:

  • — 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.

Learn more about digital subscriptions »

Nonsubscribers:

  • — 1923–1986: Articles in this date range (from January 1, 1923 through December 31, 1986) are available for purchase at $3.95 each.
  • — Pre-1923 and post-1986: Articles published before January 1, 1923 or after December 31, 1986 are free, but they count toward your monthly limit.

Learn more about your monthly limit as a nonsubscriber »

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:

  • Consumer Reports
  • The Wall Street Journal (both print and online)
  • Forbes
  • Fortune
  • Bloomberg BusinessWeek
  • The Economist
  • Vanity Fair
  • Vogue
  • The Sun
  • 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.

 

9 comments

  1. Anon’s avatar

    Firefox: Edit==>Preferences==>Privacy==>ShowCookies==>RemoveAllCookies,
    and you’re ready to go for another 10 links.
    But most users aren’t smart enough to do that.

  2. Gil Reich’s avatar

    I completely agree with you regarding teaser rates with the real rates in the fine print. I’m a proponent of limited government, but I think teaser rates is one area where the government really should step in to protect the unsophisticated consumer.

  3. Don Marti’s avatar

    Don’t forget lwn.net if you’re interested in the future of software.

    They have a subscription plan a lot like what you suggest: old articles go free of charge after two weeks, and there’s no confusing intro pricing.

    (Disclaimer: I am an infrequent contributor and have a complimentary subscription.)

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Anon, the problem with removing all cookies is that you lose the wanted ones (such as those that help you maintain state with a site you often visit) along with the unwanted ones.

    But you’re right that most people don’t bother. The feature is deeply buried, as you demonstrate.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Don. LWN is a good and worthy example of giving a way the olds and charging for the news.

  6. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    “But, maybe I’m wrong. Corrections welcome.”

    Doc, I strongly suspect you are wrong. In general, as I assume you know, advertising on pages makes a tiny, tiny amount of money unless the page itself is very aggressively oriented to advertising revenue. The New York Times bought About.com, so I assume they are not idiots about the economics of web advertising. Meanwhile, the maintenance cost of a having a huge number of pages spidered by every web-robot in existence is NOT ZERO. And I’m not talking simply bandwidth, I’m talking the humans required to keep the site running at that load, most of which effort is going to feed data to the server farms of Google and Bing and the like. It is entirely reasonable that a few high-value low-maintenance purchases yield more than chasing after a bunch of low-value high-maintenance ad-clicks.

    This also makes revenue almost completely dependent on the graces of Google, which can wipe it out in a moment (and has done it to various sites, demoting them in rankings). That’s extremely dangerous from a business standpoint.

    Note, of course, if you’re wrong, you can just say “Oops!”, and go off to the next hypefest, maybe about making money via the social data fairies sprinkling personalization pixie dust. “Be fair-y to your customers, and the fairies will customize!” (well, this is why you’re good at it, and I’m not).

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Seth, I’ll take your point that the costs of maintaining the archives themselves are not zero. Also that advertising revenue on a per-page basis, especially for rarely visited pages, would also tiny — per page. (In sum, I don’t know. I would hope they’d be enough at least to offset costs, but I’ve never been able to find an answer to that, and I’ve looked.) And also that it is dangerous for any company to depend for its advertising revenues on the easily-changed algorithms and practices of Google and Bing. Which, of course, a huge hunk of the commercial Web does.

    I don’t know if the Times or any paper with large static archives spends any amount of effort feeding data about those archives to the server farms of Google and Bing. They obviously do SEO for their high-traffic pages and sites. But, beyond making sure there are inbound links to pages that can be crawled by Google’s and Bing’s spiders — and keeping the servers running (yes, not at zero cost), I’m not sure they would need to do much with the archives at all, other than adding the latest old article leaves onto the achieve’s tree.

    Aside from the advertising issue, it would be nice to seea study, by somebody, on the public and private good that exposed newspaper archives throw off, versus the sums monetized by closing the archives and charging $2.95 or $3.95 to view them on an á la carte basis. Maybe such a thing exists. If so, I invite readers to point to one.

    As for your last paragraph, the only hypefests about “making money via the social data fairies sprinkling personalization pixie dust” I would go to are ones where I’m the guy invited to come in and give it a hard time.

  8. McCoy Pauley’s avatar

    All mainstream media pushes these days is the MegaCorp agenda. And they want me to PAY for it??? Heh.

  9. Gil Reich’s avatar

    Seth, your comment “advertising on pages makes a tiny, tiny amount of money unless the page itself is very aggressively oriented to advertising revenue,” is only partially true. NYT made $339 million in digital advertising revenue in 2011, accounting for 28% of their total advertising revenues. While About.com‘s revenue dropped by 25%, the NYT News Media Group’s digital advertising revenue rose 10% from 2010, to $233.5 million.

    You also do not need to feed data to every web spider in existence. Google and Bing pretty much covers it. And I think the overall costs are far lower than you imagine.

    Doc, to answer your questions, all of these sites, including the NYT, CNN, and WSJ (despite Murdoch’s protestations) have highly professional SEO experts focused on attracting Google (and Bing) traffic to both new and old pages.

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