Time for subscribers to fix the broken subscription business

I love the New York Times. I’ve been buying and reading the Times for most of my life, and consider it the best newspaper in the world. And, now that I’m spending more time in New York, I want to subscribe, to at least the digital edition. But trying to do that is a freaking ordeal.

First, when I go to http://ww.nytimes.com/access, I see this*:

NYTimes digital subscription first page

Note that this is only for “the first four weeks.” After that it’s what? It doesn’t say. While I’m sure the Times has analytics galore to rationalize hiding the full costs of subscriptions longer than four weeks (which the Times of course wants), it amounts to bait-and-switch.

But I want to subscribe, so I click on “continue.”

Up comes a pop-over form that wants me to re-enter my password or log out. My password guess fails, but I don’t want to log out, or go through the “don’t know your password” routine. So let’s count the frictions here:

  1. Popover. Hate them.
  2. Requiring logins and passwords. It’s 2012. This “system” was a kluge in 1995. That it’s still with us is one of the great fails of e-commerce. That it started modeling loyalty cards that same year is one of the great fails of retailing.
  3. Retrieving a forgotten password through email and re-logging only compounds the same fail.
  4. Logging out feels like pulling the lever on a trap door. I’m part-way there and don’t want to give up, says the brain, right before it says, Fuggit, I give up.

But I don’t give up, because I really want a damn subscription. So I log out, and find myself at https://myaccount.nytimes.com/gst/signou…, where it says,

You are now logged out of NYTimes.com. Thanks for visiting.

Then adds,

And, over on in a column on the right, all this:

My Account Common Tasks

Contact Us

So where’s what it costs after four weeks? I have no idea. So I click on “Register a new account,” and see it’s a come-on to sign up for newsletters and stuff. I already get some of those. This tells me I need to go recover the password, unless I want to have two accounts rather than one. So I try logging in again.

This time I go through several tries using a variety of old passwords, and find one that works. Now I’m at http://www.nytimes.com/. At the top of the page, where it says Digital / Home Delivery, I click on the first link and find myself at the same page I show at the top.

This time when I click on “continue,” an ORDER SUMMARY page comes up. Here’s a screen shot of the parts that matter:

Note how the full costs — $15 every four weeks — are mumbled. According to Google’s calculator, the cost comes to 53.571428571¢ per day. I think that’s worth it, but I also think the system is worse than broken, and don’t wish to reward it.

But I don’t want just to complain. (Which I’ve done before anyway, to no effect.) I want to build a better system: one that works for both subcribers and publishers. This can only be done by developers and users working together, for all subscribers and all publishers. One thing should be clear, after seventeen years of failure here: the publishers can’t fix it from their side alone. The demand side needs to build the table at which every subscriber and publisher can sit. A zillion different tables for a zillion different publishers is exactly the kind of mess that the Internet and the Web are ideally positioned to solve. So let’s finish the job.

Subscribers know that information is free, but value wants to be paid for. The New York Times has enormous value. For people who value the content of its character and just its curb weight on streets and tablets, four bits a day is cheap. The Times doesn’t need to conceal that cost.

But as long as the Times and other papers remain stuck in the commercial Web’s antique calf-cow system — in which subscribers come as calves to the publishers’ cows for the milk of “content” and cookies they don’t want — everybody will be stuck in the wrong species and the market won’t evolve past the cattle industry stage.

So, at #IIW today, I will propose a #VRM session titled Fixing subscriptions from the customer’s side. Suggestions welcome. But they have to be VRM suggestions — ones that give us both independence and better means of engagement, for all publishers, and not each separately. Think of how today’s email system (SMTP, IMAP, POP3 and other protocols) fixed the problem of different proprietary email systems from MCI, Compuserve, Prodigy and for every company that could afford to mount its own internal systems. We need that kind of thing now for subscriptions. Asking for better behavior on the publishers’ side won’t work. Making better cows won’t work. We need something that makes us all peers, as email, the Web, and the Internet do. Let’s build that.

Bonus Link, two weeks later, from Dave Winer.

* [Later... When I first wrote this, I missed the "Regular Rate" column above, with the lines through the prices. This was clearly an oversight on my part, for which I was offered corrections aplenty in the comments below. Still, looking for what was also in plain sight sent me on the rest of this journey, which is why I am leaving it intact. I would also direct the reader (and the Times, if they're reading this) to what Scott Adams says about confusopolies, of which the newspaper subscription business is one example. Thanks to the confusopolistic nature of that business, there is no reason to believe that the "regular" prices listed are the only long-term ones, or that the 99¢ prices are the only discounted ones. This too makes the rest of the journey I took — and this post as well — worthwhile... I hope.]

9 Comments

  1. Matt Taylor says:

    I understand your frustration in the moment, but the criticism still seems a bit hyperbolic. For example, the rate claimed to be a bait and switch is actually clearly marked on the screen shot you show (particularly in comparison to, say, some promotional Cable TV subscription where the actual cost is buried in some fine print). Such deliberate attempts to hide the facts, at least to me, is far more devious.
    If one is questioning the system of paying for information that is stored in a browse-able or query-able form online like the NYTimes website, one might as well continue by questioning the validity of every major news information database to which libraries subscribe (e.g. Lexis Nexis) — the original digital news and periodical paywall, albeit on CD-ROM. Is this the level to which this argument extends? If so, this is really a commentary on how news media needs to wholly adapt from “pushing” [an entire paper] to “pulling” [delivering a specific article based on a Google search].
    I feel like there are alternative operational models already happening: (1) open access traditional news: NPR disseminates news for free and hopes for corporate, government, and listener/reader support. They may or may not get it. (2) News aggregators can operate in a free and open news dissemination business because there is very little overhead to cutting and pasting others’ news. But it’s debatable how sustainable it is, particularly as traditional news outlets fail.
    (3) The micropayment model. Before Apple launched the iTunes music store, most digital music transactions were “free.” How could Apple compete with a market of free products? By offering low-cost, high quality items. For the NYTimes, this could be a pay-as-you-go model. Each article read costs $0.02, for example. Before long, one would actually approach the daily cost you’ve calculated reading most articles in a newspaper, but with the option of paying only for the sections/articles deemed important.
    (4) The internet has been a social tool, a democratization tool that has given the illusion that it can help undermine certain conventional authorities, including media houses. The conventional news gathering and reporting sphere is threatened in this way by the blog-o-sphere, which some might argue is already happening.
    So, perhaps in developing a generic “subscription API” you will facilitate both a micropayment model, while also giving smaller operations an opportunity to earn revenue. But then, it’s hard to say how this will be really so different than current online ad revenue models.
    In general however, I think it’s hard for me and probably others to imagine making significant changes to the most obvious bastion of traditional news gathering and dissemination in the United States. Each time a paper shuts down, I sigh. I’m old school, I receive and read the paper on paper. Such volume delivery of a daily news makes the distinction of something being “in the paper” vs. “in an article.” Like the value of a doctor who has been accredited as an M.D. by a proper medical school vs. a chiropractor of unknown certifications, I gravitate toward various media fortresses, and pay for them, while I can. Soon, however, I may not be able to afford my newspaper, and not able to afford my doctor, and I’ll just be relying on crowd-sourced scores for medicine and news.

    I think if you haven’t seen it, you should watch the documentary about the NYTimes, “Page One.”

  2. http://1p2u.com is the solution, almost complete, but I can’t finish it unfunded. Perhaps others can?

  3. I’ve come across a lot of hidden prices for various pubs but this isn’t one of them. I’ve seen variations of this promo numerous times since launch and thought it was pretty clear that the regular rate on the left is the one subscribers would pay after the trial. Agree that the other issues can make getting a digital subscription kludgy.

  4. Doc Searls says:

    Staci, you’re right that the regular price isn’t hidden. But the fact that I missed it is evidence of the intended effect of the colored 99¢ promotional price.

    The come-on is also, as Dave Winer posted today, unworthy of the Times.

  5. Claudio says:

    Are you serious?
    Really not hard to know. The cost after the first 4 weeks will be exactly what it says in the screenshot at the top of this page.
    Hint: read the column under “Regular Price”. There are three levels from which to chose. The price of each level is on the middle column. The third column reflects the first 4 weeks price.
    I think the scheme is focused in letting you read the contents for a month to let you decide whether you would be willing to pay the regular price.
    Your post reads as if you feel entitled to a free subscription and looking for a very passive – aggressive way to complain you are not getting free access.

  6. Doc Searls says:

    Claudio,

    I either missed or discounted the full price column in my own mind, I suppose because it had strike marks though the prices. Whatever the case (it’s been a few days), the Times is clearly playing a game here, and it’s one of at least partial obfuscation. See how Dave Winer is also annoyed at a different promo scheme.

    I’ve read the Times for most of my life. I gladly pay for it, and often, at news stands. I don’t need an “introductory” rate. Same goes for countless other potential subscribers. The Times, as Dave says, could be much more direct about costs.

    Did you read the whole post? I don’t see how you could and still make your closing remark. I’m working on being constructive here. And I’m not alone.

  7. James Schmeling says:

    I understand the irritation with perceived lack of transparency, particularly in pop-up promotions and other promotional pages. But, it’s in the “See details” link on each option.

    I pointed this out to Dave Winer yesterday on Twitter, with links to each of the options, the free piece if a print subscriber, and the cancellation policy. He banned me, though I’m not totally clear why. I really did read his posts and his questions, and thought I answered them, but even so acknowledged there was no point in my arguing with him on the Internet. But his point was, I suppose, that he was unhappy with the promotion pricing strategy not being READILY transparent about price after promotion period. (I’m sad he banned me, his Tweets are informative, as is Scripting News, which I’ve regularly read for some time!)

    The four week renewal is irritating because the billing date changes – it really is every four weeks, not once a month, and my bank account gets billed every four weeks, so never the same date. But as a former Des Moines Register newspaper carrier in my youth, that’s how those little tickets worked for subscriptions, too. We collected every two weeks or every month from every subscriber on our route, never once a month, and the rates were always per week, paid in two week increments.

    They could be more clear, but even their pricing policy language is meant to give them flexibility in pricing promotions, to discriminate in what pricing offers they make to each audience, (.edu for instance), or for the various media, and have the template remain the same, and the policy language remain the same despite price level offered or device access. (That also irritates me – why are they charging for different access points? Yeah, I realize it’s likely because they create the programming teams and pay them based on device-usage.)

    I love the NY Times paper, but it piles up if I don’t read it, so digital is my preferred source. I settled on digital + tablet because I don’t read it on my phone. And I subscribe to the commercial, not .edu, version because that allows me to share it with member of my household for their device or web access, while .edu only allows me to read it on my devices.

    James

  8. Doc Searls says:

    James,

    Thanks for your feedback.

    Here’s the thing. We can look at subscription models entirely their own current frame of reference, which is old-fashioned marketing. In that frame the papers see (and talk about) subscribers as “acquisitions” to “target,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in,” as if they were slaves or cattle — or we can look at customers as fully human beings who can bring their own intelligence, tools and intentions to the market’s table. The Times doesn’t do this. Nor do most papers, even though they are well-positioned to begin doing that. And nor do most of the rest of us, because all we know is what the papers present us, just as they have been doing for the better part of a century.

    Ignore for a minute how I may have gotten the Times’ pitch wrong. And look past suggestions anybody might make about how the Times can improve their offering. Instead think about what we wrote in The Cluetrain Manifesto thirteen years ago. When we said “markets are conversations,” we meant markets are tables across which buyers and sellers can talk, and where customers can bring values other than money alone. We can help the Times here. In fact, we can help them as only customers can help them.

    This is what we’ve been working at ProjectVRM since 2006. I invite readers here to look at that work, and to understand the context of the postings here. Everything I write on this blog has to do with empowering customers for the good of markets. That’s what’s behind the title of this post and everything I wrote in it.

  9. James Schmeling says:

    Doc, I absolutely agree with everything you just wrote, and even understood that from the outset in your post (not so clear in Dave’s). I just hate to use bad examples (“I don’t know what it costs”), when that information really is available with a few moments of review, as the starting point.

    I’ve thought for a long time that The Cluetrain Manifesto had it right about markets, conversations, networked people and peoples, and opportunities for growth and collaboration. It was a source of thought over the past dozen years as I’ve done work with communities of practice, sharing knowledge and resources with under-represented communities (first people with disabilities, now veterans) to be certain they can participate in the market conversations.

    I think subscriptions are a place to target for innovation. (And I’d like to throw HBR under the bus here too – their renewal policies suck, despite the value the magazine and website give! Though their recent table subs are at least better than the NYT options, I think.) But I’m not certain that price discrimination for certain market segments, or “teaser” advertising that incentivize people to subscribe with low initial rates, are that bad, for me. I understand the objections though.

    I actually thought AOL/Time Warner COULD have gotten much of this right when they merged – subscribers to some things could have access to MANY things, not as subscribers, but as browsers, people who were interested in information and knowledge, with innovative models. Instead it seemed to go to a cross-marketing, upsell, strategy.

    I do look forward to hearing more on the VRM model of subscriptions as that evolves.

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