Thursday, March 17, 2011

The NY Times Unleashes Paywall; Confirms That it Has No Clue

The New York Times has finally released all of the details of their impending paywall. It is, somehow, both stupider and smarter than I was expecting. The details:

  • You can access articles for free via search engines and social media links, similar to The Wall Street Journal. Google provides five free articles per day.
  • Newspaper subscribers get access. This includes both weekdays and Sunday-only.
  • There are three levels of price: web & phone $15/month; web & tablet $20/month; web, tablet, & phone $35/month.
  • Those prices include 100 "archive" articles per month.
  • Users can view 20 articles per month for free.

Let's go through this step by step and find out why the NY Times is out of its freaking mind.

If you're going to have a paywall that's full of holes, why bother with a paywall at all. User conversion rates are going to be minuscule; less than 1% if other data are representative. As such, you'll get people interested in using the service for free, only to cut them off once they become frequent users. Conversion rates will remain low, and the bad experience will reduce the likelihood of their coming back even for free articles.

The Times doesn't go into details about how your monthly limit will be tracked. If it's done via a cookie, it would be very easy to simply delete the cookie and browse free for ever, so I doubt they'll do that. Instead, they'll force everyone who even just stumbles into the Times to create an account, which will send reader numbers even lower.

The pricing tiers are outright bizarre. You can get the phone and web, or tablet and web, but not phone and tablet, or just web. It also holds a twisted view of news as something that is defined by its container, and not by the content. It's all just data, so charging more for each variant of the same data is strange.

The archive limit is something that I find silly, if not stupid. The Times should be pushing their archive as hard as they can since it's the one thing that their competitors can't match. It's something that simply comes with age. It can bring eyes to the Times pages from people who were searching for something entirely unrelated to current events.

I'll reiterate, this behavior is being caused by a company that thinks its money came from somewhere it didn't, it's also confused as to what its product actually is. Newspapers always ran off of advertising revenue. Consumers classically paid as little as possible. It got to the point where magazine subscriptions cost $10 for an entire year. I wasn't even paying for the printing at that cost!

The product that magazines and newspapers once sold was, at the time, partially the publications. People did pay, so people were dispensing value units, money, in exchange for the paper. But their real product, the thing that they were actually selling to pay the bills, was access to those eyes that their publication had attracted. They were selling their readers to advertisers. The publications were merely an expensive way to attract a group of people every day.

The problem that newspapers are encountering is a drop in the value of each reader. Anyone could have predicted this, and many did. Newspaper value was high because it was one of the few games in town that attracted large audiences around a single medium: the newspaper. If the number of avenues (publications) increases, the value of each avenue will decrease. The internet suddenly made every newspaper a direct competitor. As such, the value of each person dropped precipitously. But that's not the whole story.

Newspapers were rarely read by just one person. Thus, the cost per impression was actually lower than the subscriber counts indicated. The Times charged a set amount per column inch in advertising, and if you divide the total number of paid column inches by print numbers, you were able to derive the earnings per print. If we assume that only one person sees a paper, then the earnings per print equals the earnings per impression, but that's not the case. Many papers are read by many people. For example, a newspaper in a doctor's office is read by dozens of people. This drops the value of the cost per impression since we have to divide the total revenue by a greater number of people. What this does is drop the value of individual people closer to the level of the cheap cost-per-impression that exists on the internet.

I think that the drop in impression value isn't as large as the shaky financial situation of the various newspapers would indicate. I think their situations are the result of bloat and bad management, which was allowable in the days when advertising revenue per column inch was very high. It all went wrong because the drop in per-impression advertising value was not met by an equal increase in impressions. And if we assume that there were far more impressions that prints, you can see how reader numbers must become very large to warrant the same income as before.

Again, that's why AOL is pushing SEO onto every post. They need to get those reader numbers very high to earn the kind of money that the Times used to earn. BUT IT CAN BE DONE! Not only can it be done, but the earnings of old will be eclipsed by the earnings of a well-networked content company today. For example, Gawker media has begun abandoning old-style advertising in favor of integrated advertising. This isn't an "ad" per se, but a brand that is integrated with the brand of the content creator.

Try going to one of Gawker's sites, be it Gizmodo or io9, you'll find at least one of them with some brand plastered right up there with the website's logo. It's part of the website. Adblocker does nothing, and importantly, it doesn't need to. Adblocker is helpful because banner ads are usually garish, screen-filling, CPU-hogging monsters. They've changed the nature of the advertisements. Not entirely, but one that's only really feasible in a digital environment.

The Times needs to increase readership, not decimate it. They need to come up with new ideas for advertisements, not simply shovel out the same ones. The paywall does neither of these things. The paywall will be a failure, guaranteed.

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