Monday, January 25, 2010

Hit the brakes, stop the skid: NY Times to charge "frequent readers"?

A sure sign that they are desperately trying to find new ways to make up for shortfalls, and declining sales.

Starting in early 2011, visitors to will get a certain number of articles free every month before being asked to pay a flat fee for unlimited access. Subscribers to the newspaper’s print edition will receive full access to the site.

But executives of The New York Times Company said they could not yet answer fundamental questions about the plan, like how much it would cost or what the limit would be on free reading. They stressed that the amount of free access could change with time, in response to economic conditions and reader demand.

As I recall, for a time the Times had been hiding their punditry behind a curtain similar to this. It flopped as a business model, and the curtain went back up. It is too easy, not only to get entertaining punditry outside the wire, but, one could read, if not every word of the sage Times group, good chunks of same in blogs, and other sites on the net.

No doubt, this isn't the first or last time a paper will try this, the Times has in mind models from the actions of other papers:

Company executives said the current decision was not a reaction to the ad recession but a long-term strategy to develop new revenue.

“This is a bet, to a certain degree, on where we think the Web is going,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “This is not going to be something that is going to change the financial dynamics overnight.”

Two specialized papers charge already: The Wall Street Journal, which makes certain articles accessible only to subscribers, and The Financial Times, which allows non-paying readers to see up to 10 articles a month, a system close to what is planned by The Times.

Most readers who go to the Times site, as with other news sites, are incidental visitors, arriving no more than once in a while through searches and links, and many of them would be unaffected by the new system. A much smaller number of committed readers account for the bulk of the site visits and page views, and the essential question is how many of them will pay to continue that habit.

These papers are struggling with the fact that the online environment is creating a sea of free alternative sources for news and opinion. True, papers like the NYT and WSJ have had long standing and good news operations, and a reserve of extremely experienced journos, but so too do other outlets, including many that have substantially free access. These too, like the WSJ charge for some content, keep other offerings behind curtains. These offer not only the written word, but video and audio as well. So, the Times will have to compete with all of these (both old and new media). That competition will not go away, and at least a few of the outlets will continue to charge only for their magazine, paper, or online equivalents.

On a related note, Michael Kinsley complains about something that has been complained about before: The NYT (and the WAPO) indulge in what I call "editorializing 'padification'" when it comes to their allegedly straight news stories. The result is off-putting not only to those that do not agree with the political angle of said editorializing (and no doubt, some who do agree), but to those that do not wish to wade through verbosity to get at the kernel of actual news being reported. Online, or in print, you lose patience with being forced to do this. Time is a precious commodity, and to be made to wade through two to three pages of padding, even if you agree with the gist of the editorial padification is indeed eye-roll inducing, and irritating.

Kinsley instances this gem:

Take, for example, the lead story in The New York Times on Sunday, November 8, 2009, headlined “Sweeping Health Care Plan Passes House.” There is nothing special about this article. November 8 is just the day I happened to need an example for this column. And there it was. The 1,456-word report begins:

Handing President Obama a hard-fought victory, the House narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system on Saturday night, advancing legislation that Democrats said could stand as their defining social policy achievement.

Fewer than half the words in this opening sentence are devoted to saying what happened.

Yes, and it reads as if Obama is Bret Favre bravely mounting a fourth quarter come from behind victory, that will ice his, and the Democrat party's place in the pantheon of great and noble achievements in social justice.

OK, news hawk, we know you look at this legislation through that lens, and it must seem damn near a trivial truth that this legislation, or something like it is obviously the correct way to look at the events, but suppose that I am not sitting in a Starbucks, sipping a mocha latte' with an hour to spend savoring your padification, and I just wanted to know what the heck happened with the health care legislation. Why cannot the hard news sections be written in a style something like this?

The House narrowly passed the latest health care reform bill offered by Democrats and President Obama.

Phew. That was easy. But wait! Kinsley has an even better lede for the same news story, this one from the WAPO:

Hours after President Obama exhorted Democratic lawmakers to “answer the call of history,” the House hit an unprecedented milestone on the path to health-care reform, approving a trillion-dollar package late Saturday that seeks to overhaul private insurance practices and guarantee comprehensive and affordable coverage to almost every American.

Once again, Obama as Superman passing (instead of 'hitting' right?) milestones, looking out after (almost) every American. [Can there be such a thing as an 'unprecedented milestone'?]

Reading news in the print or online edition of either of these papers becomes an exercise in editorial reading (by that I mean, reading as if in the role of an editor for a sophomoric and verbose writer). Why should anyone outside the paper have to play that role? Isn't that the role of, oh, I don't know, THE EDITORS?

Methinks that the relative success of a paper like USA Today has to do with it's lack of indulgence in editorial, and other forms of padification in its news areas, and its relegation of opinion to its opinion pages. Maybe following a similar practice would help the Times?

Monday Madness

The Sun and the Rain

Thomas Sowell on conflicting political visions

Constrained v Unconstrained Vision


American Conservatism v American Progressivism

American Revolution v French Revolution

Aristotelian political theory v Platonic theory

John Adams v Thomas Jefferson (to some extent)