Sell the news, give away the olds

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.

7 comments

  1. Derek’s avatar

    How to process the micro transactions? Paypal? Google? We’d have to offer and implement every single processor out there in order to generate the best pool of payees.

    So, John wants to pay for the day – he clicks and then is given a monster list of processors – and we are hoping he’s previously payed for something with one of these. Interrupting the user experience will doom the process.

  2. Dave Ball’s avatar

    One quibble with your analysis. The current method of selling print is not “pay for today’s news, anything older is free”, it’s “pay for today’s news, anything older isn’t available.” You can’t go to the newsstand and buy yesterday’s paper; it’s been shredded. You can go to the library and read it, but you can also go there and get today’s news for free.

    Much of what is in a publication, be it a newspaper or magazine, is not really time-bound. It doesn’t really matter if I read it today, tomorrow, or next month. Giving away the “old news” isn’t really a business strategy, it’s a path to bankruptcy.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I agree, Dave, that the value of a paper is not limited to the daily edition on the day it’s published. I’m also not arguing that old news has no value. I’m just suggesting that papers could simplify matters a great deal by aligning online with offline. Opening the archives is a separate point. Some papers, such as the NYTimes, make money on those. But most papers don’t, and giving it away would be a very useful loss leader. Example: the Santa Barbara News-Press contains a treasure trove of history that is entirely locked away behind a onerous paywall that makes the paper, I am sure, close to no money at all. I also believe the Times would get far more benefit out of opening the archives than they do today by keeping them closed (or available on a limited basis to subscribers).

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Derek, your scenario is why I suggest that the app set-up require naming a single payment intermediator. The “monster list” would then appear only once.

  5. Lamont Cranston’s avatar

    You overlook the fact that the vast majority of newspaper’s revenue comes from advertising, not subscription fees.

    Previous to the internet, the freight for newspapers was mostly paid by classified advertising, not display ads. With that revenue stream obliterated, newspapers have been cutting cost (i.e. firing people) in the hopes they can sustain their business on display ads and subscription fees alone, but declining circulation has made it impossible.

    As for giving away old news, it’s like the video store of old. The majority of people only want the new stuff. Old releases don’t bring in enough money to pay for much.

  6. Daniel’s avatar

    Have you ever actually tried to “read the paper” online? It isn’t all there. The obits, ap news feed, the comics, and more are missing. You can’t say online and print are the same and should have the same price until they actually are the same.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Lamont, I am aware of newspapers’ business model. Could it be that advertising online is actually worth more in a paper people pay for than in one they get for free? I think that’s worth considering, again because that’s how it already works in the print world.

    Daniel, good point. So maybe they should charge less than I suggest. Mostly I’m just floating an idea here.

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