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Book of Matthew: Peering over The Times’ paywall

Published: April 8, 2011
Section: Opinions

Those of us who follow the news are familiar with The New York Times. Journalism students in particular are encouraged to read The Times every day, and it shows. Read through The Hoot’s entire Impressions section—heck, read the Justice’s Forum as well—and you can bet that many, if not most, of the writers who grace our pages got their op-ed ideas from The Times.

You can also bet that many, if not most, did not pay for the privilege.

I was reminded of this fact earlier this week when I clicked on a Times online article and was greeted by a little pop-up window in the bottom left corner of my screen, reminding me that I only had five out of 20 free articles left for the month.

Whoops. It was only the beginning of April, and already I was failing to keep track of my usage.

Many Times readers were not surprised when, on March 28, the paper put its online content behind a paywall. We knew something about The Times’ business model had to change—online advertisers pay a pittance, and despite averaging 30 million unique viewers per month the paper had been bleeding money for years.

To read more than 20 Times articles each month, readers now have a few options. They can pay $15 per month for unlimited access to the Times website from a computer or smartphone, $20 per month for access from a computer or tablet, or $35 per month for access from all three.

Old-school readers who subscribe to the print version of The Times will also be able to read it online on all three devices at no extra charge. If you live within the New York area, a seven-day paper subscription will set you back $23.40 per month, and the price increases the farther away you live.

Of course, a problem arises: How do you tell readers who are used to reading whatever they want for free on the Internet that they must transition back to paying for their news?

Call me one of the guilty ones: I don’t subscribe to any publications, online or off. I am yet another stereotypical freeloading consumer of news—rather than be loyal to any particular organization, I read my news rapidly and randomly, bouncing from free story to free story as fast as the hyperlinks can carry me. It’s not because I don’t support journalists—if anything, I do it simply out of the habits that Internet use has cultivated in me.

But I was taken aback when I read Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s tweet in mid-March, when news of the paywall was first released: “And yes, I’m going to say it,” he wrote. “If we loose [sic] some viewer [sic] then so be it. I’d rather write for people who value my work anyway.”

Which brings me to an interesting paradox, because I do believe that I value this product—or at least, I know that I ought to. As a citizen I want to be informed; as a prospective journalist I would really, really like to have a job in this industry someday.

It is probably for people like me that The Times designed its paywall with so many deliberate holes. For example, Times articles posted on social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter do not count as part of the monthly 20 article maximum.

It’s an incredibly bold move that will supposedly keep casual readers interested in the paper. But ultimately, it won’t solve The Time’s financial problems; for that, I think more bold moves are in order.

If it hopes to attract more paying customers, The Times is going to have to address its cost issue. For an all-digital offering, the new online subscription prices are surprisingly high, especially that of the $35 option.

I’m not convinced that it makes good business sense to charge more for this option than for a daily paper subscription that includes all the benefits of an online access plan plus an actual newspaper. Newspapers as a physical medium are dying, we are told, because people don’t want to pay for them. Charging an even higher price for a lesser product isn’t going to help.

Journalist and blogger Steve Outing recently argued on his blog that The Times should scrap its new price structure all together and replace it with something that more closely resembles the pricing of Apple’s iTunes store. While a few elite readers may be willing to pay $15 to $35 per month for something that they used to get for free, Outing writes, most will not. Instead, he suggested charging 99 cents per month for computer access to The Times and $1.99 for computer, smartphone and tablet access. This way, more readers will be willing to pay a fee that, to them, seems like almost nothing, but still earns the Times extra revenue.

It’s also time for The Times to carry out a long-overdue website redesign. No matter how much you charge for your product, you need to entice people to pay for it in the first place. This means offering customers not only good, in-depth reporting, but also a pleasant, readable format that they will want to come back to again and again.

In some ways, The Times is already off to a good start. Visit its homepage, and you’ll notice that photo slideshows, videos, and other multimedia are well- integrated.

On the other hand, the whole thing looks like a newspaper, and from a website design perspective, that’s not a good thing.

I don’t want to squint to read the cramped headlines and even tinier section titles that The Times web designers managed to fit together in a page so small that it has wide, blank side margins, even on my relatively tiny 13-inch computer screen. Let’s face it—this website was designed for square CRT monitors circa 1998. There are a lot of nicer looking ones out there competing for reader attention.

Perhaps I’m looking too deeply into the crystal ball. Perhaps none of us can say what truly attracts or detracts readers from different websites, but I will say this: If The Times continues to improve itself and its pricing plan, here’s one freeloader who will be glad to join the ranks of the paying customers.