February 27, 2014

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We decided this year to zero-base all our subscriptions to print publications. The reasoning: since most pubs give the best deals to new or slow-to-return readers, wait to see how far down they push the price, and in the meantime see if we actually miss them. So far we’ve re-subscribed to Consumer Reports. That’s it.  We’ll see how the rest go.

Meanwhile, the subject of newspaper business models has come up in a lot of conversations lately. (Hat tips in particular go to Dave WinerJeff JarvisMarc Andreessen, Jim Griffin, Dan GillmorJay Rosen and Clay Shirky.) Since most of the ideas being batted around don’t address the complicated pricing schemes the papers have today, I thought now might be a good time to re-suggest what I’ve recommended for many years: make online pricing the same kind as the print one. In other words, charge for the news and give away the olds.

Most papers already have paywalls, and most of those are annoying, confusing or worse. Just move them around so they align with the well-understood print world.

For example, I’d have the NYTimes pitch it like this:

We now charge for the same way for our digital and print editions. You can pay for today’s digital edition like you would at a newsstand, or you can subscribe. Everything older than a day is free. That includes unlimited access to all our archives. And, because it’s cheaper for us to produce our digital edition, it’s cheaper for you too: Our cover price for today’s paper is $1.50. Our subscription price is $4 per week for delivery to your phone, tablet or computer.

On phones and tablets, the paper’s app would require a one-time easy-pay setup enabling both á la carte and subscription purchases. For those who choose not to subscribe, the welcome page would have just two buttons: Buy today’s paper, and Subscribe. That’s it. If they subscribe, no welcome page. Once on the app (or on the paper’s page in a browser), non-subscribers will see a headline and maybe a little more. That’s it. But spare people the complicated pop-overs with the wordy pitches (like the Boston Globe‘s here — that “99¢  for four weeks” line demands a “wtf is the real price after that?” response from intelligent readers).

Of course, the circulation people at the paper will hate it, since they’ve been making subscribing complicated for the duration, and they love to rationalize gaming customers. (Same goes for all papers, by the way.) But it’s a matter of time before the rest of the world gets to the place where my wife and I are today: being much more selective about which pub’s confusing subscription games we’re willing to play, and saying no to the rest of the mess in the meantime.

A word to papers about the archives: they are fish-wrap with huge positive externalities, including accessibility to search engines and visiting scholars doing research. Quit charging for access to them. You’re making peanuts on them anyway.

A hat tip here also goes to Matter, a new startup accelerator in San Francisco. I went to a presentation of work by Matter-based media startups in New York a couple days ago and got excited about their approach, which is exactly in line with what I’m suggesting with this post: fail forward.