Why the New York Times’ Pay Model is Similar to NPR and Spot.Us

By David Cohn on March 30, 2011 0 Comments Experiments

David Cohn, 2010-2011 FellowDavid Cohn, 2010-2011 Fellow

From the launch of Spot.Us, I’ve always said the following:

  • Anyone can tackle the crowdfunded journalism model. In fact, NPR could do it tomorrow and blow me out of the water. It’s just about being transparent and giving up control over how donation money gets spent.
  • This model would have more success at the national or international level.
  • This model would have more success if a known brand took the lead. (Again, I always tend to cite NPR.)

There has been much opining about the New York Times pay wall that went up this week. I was quoted in a Neiman Lab post on the topic; I wrote about it for the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I’m currently a fellow; and I was a guest on WNPR, an NPR station in Connecticut, to discuss the topic with other news professionals.

Here’s one thing that I previously haven’t said publicly: Whether or not they know it, and without identifying it as such, the New York Times has taken a big step towards the NPR model. And that puts them just a stone’s throw away from the Spot.Us model. In some respects, I actually think they are closer and more likely to pull it off than NPR.

Subscription Plan Isn’t About Access

Let’s start by calling a “duck” what it is. The “pay wall” is not a “wall.” It’s incredibly porous. A savvy reader can find a dozen ways around it, from finding a Tweet of the story you’re interested in to removing part of the Times’ URL. In other words, the subscription plan is not about access. People that think the fee is about access are the same folks who think they have to pay AOL for Internet access in order to keep their AOL email address. Savvy readers will know it isn’t about “access” but rather something else. For starters, it benefits the print subscribers, who pay less for digital access than all-digital subscribers. Fair enough.

But I am willing to bet a LOT of people will pay for a “subscription” not for access and not because it comes with their print subscription, but for something else.

Donation Driven Journalism

If there is one thing that Press+ has taught us (aside from the fact that really rich folks can hype up a technology product and sell it off for millions of dollars) it’s that, yes, people will pay for news even if access to is never truly restricted. That’s a limited audience/market, but it exists. Interestingly enough, the price point doesn’t matter as much as one would think. That audience will pay $5 if you ask, and they’ll pay $15 if you set that as the benchmark.

National Public Radio has known about this small market for a LONG time. I could have told you this within 10 minutes of launching Spot.Us. But at least today we can see it as more of a given for the conversation. There is an audience that will pay for content. It’s small, and not a replacement for advertising, but it’s there.

The NYTimes.com subscription plans are not enough to sustain the entire organization, but it is a new revenue stream that didn’t exist before. You can call it a “pay wall” or a “metered wall” but, again, I think we should call a duck a duck. This is a donation system, plain and simple. News organizations don’t want to refer to “metered walls” as “donations,” and I understand why. I’m happy to stroke their hair as they cry into their ink-stained hands. We can call it whatever they want, but it’s a donation because there is no HARD reason for anyone to pay it other than because they want to or are too uninformed about how to get around it.

A Modest Proposal

Assuming the New York Times doesn’t want its future tied to the technical ignorance of the masses the way AOL currently does with its dial-up customers, the next question is: What can the Times give to its new donors? As Dave Winer and Steve Outing have both said:

“Wouldn’t it have been wise to, at this juncture, offer something to sweeten the deal. Something truly exciting and new that you get when you pay the money. Something that makes your palms sweat and your heart beat faster?” (Dave Winer)

Tote bags? Bumper stickers? Membership to a wine of the month club (with wine reviews from the Times sent along with every bottle)?

These incentives are necessary because the Times needs to find other ways to keep a paying customer on board. Where one month somebody might pay, the next they’ll slap their face and say, “Why am I doing this? It’s certainly not for access.”

These tote bag gifts mimic NPR fundraising. But let’s think even further. What could be an incentive that would increase transparency and participation in journalism and not cost the NYT organization infrastructure costs (ie: purchasing and shipping thousands of tote bags)?

Imagine if along with every $15 monthly “metered access” payment a NYTimes.com reader also got five NYT Points. After three months they’ve accumulated 15 NYT Points. Those points can then be used to vote on topics, areas of coverage, or redeemed for the tote bag mentioned above (an excellent plan B).

Again, NPR could do this tomorrow, except — believe it or not — NPR is a bureaucratic nightmare when it comes to how donations are handled. Remember, each NPR station is unique and the mothership NPR, aside from being caught in a culture war, is not allowed to fundraise from individuals the way independent stations are.

But the Times doesn’t have this hangup. Whether they admit it or not, they’ve begun fundraising efforts this week. So will the NYT find something to make it fun for donors? Or do they think that the false claim to “access” is enough?

Opportunity to Interact with the Times Community

I think there are a lot of smart folks at the Times and they’ll be watching how people react and pay/don’t pay for this subscription system. For those that do pay it one month the question is, will they continue to pay? For that, they need to be purchasing something. Call them “NYT Points,” call it “NYT Membership” — I don’t care. But I think a part of it should include giving those members a stake in how the funds from their subscription are spent.

In other words, there could be a new sense of transparency and participatory control in how a news organization spends its funds. With their new metered pay wall, the NYT is just one incy-wincy step away from cracking the code to crowd-funded journalism. Why do I want to pay my $15 this month? Because then I can vote on next month’s NYT coverage. This would be the NYT using a kind of Spot.Us model.

And if that day ever comes, you won’t find anyone happier than me.

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