I’ve never worked for a newspaper or any conventional news organization in my life. So I’m perfectly willing to accept that there may be considerations I’m not aware of in the New York Times’ decision to go paywall.
But this isn’t about journalism at all, its about marketing. As a web developer who has worked in a few large and small companies over the years, primarily working on those businesses’ marketing strategies, I do know more than a little something about marketing and sales. The first rule is: you have to sell value, not a product.
The iPad you bought nearly a year ago is now the discount model; the records I detested as a child are now worth a small fortune. Value changes over time and based on circumstance because there is no inherent value in anything. Value is a product of human interest.
The value of a news article as a single object has gone down dramatically over the last ten years. That’s in large part due to the fact that most news orgs give their stuff away for free online, but even if we were expected to pay for every article, the sheer volume of news available to us at any one time would also reduce the value. This is basic Supply and Demand economics like you learned in the sixth grade.
Another rule of marketing: value is about exclusivity. Tell me why I should buy something from you that I could go buy anywhere and you have yourself a sale. The trouble for the news biz is simple: nothing is exclusive anymore, or at least, very little. News orgs have always piggy-backed on one another’s articles, with a piece in the NYT sparking a local story in the D&C and so on. That’s not only good journalism, its good intellectualism across the board. But its not exclusive, and that’s what sells.
Which is why the idea of “20 free articles a month” is just so unthinkably silly: those articles already practically free in the minds of most Americans anyway. And if any twenty random articles count towards your tally, then no article has more value than the next. By definition, the paywall removes even the most modest veneer of value from the content the New York Times is putting out. It is self-defeating.
What the New York Times has to hope for is that they are able to produce twenty one or more articles per month that are simultaneously entirely exclusive and interesting enough to readers that they’re willing to pay a $20 premium for that twenty first article. Because otherwise, they’re just giving away twenty good articles.
The Times would be better-served by reorganizing their content structure. Consider a major article to be like a category, with many other articles filed under that category. Anybody and their brother can check out the main article – which is factual, in-depth and satisfying as its own thing. But to see the additional content, you have to pay the premium.
Commentary by famous people, infographics, archives, raw data. These are just a few things to which people do not have access – hey, we’re talking about the Grey Lady, here! Can you imagine what things they have to offer? – that many people would be more than willing to pay for. Even if loser bloggers like me yap about it, that’s not the same as actually reading the content.
Because of course, the two most important rules of marketing are these: you sell yourself, instead of the product and you sell the experience, not the item. New York Times has a tremendous level of trust, which is the primary vector of all sales: you sell yourself, not the product. And they have a reputation for hugely insightful reportage and wide coverage of topics: you sell the experience, not the item.
But the Times? Well, they’re trying to sell product. Good luck with that.