Paying for The Times
Stephen Bainbridge wonders about the subject of charging for news online. How come some publishers can get away with it, while others cannot?
From a business perspective, the interesting question is why the WSJ Online seems to work and other on line subscription services don’t. There’s no obvious reason that the NYT, say, can’t replicate the success of the Online Journal.
I think the answer is that there’s simply so much free news content out there, it’s just difficult to provide something sufficiently unique that people are willing to pay for it. Not surprisingly, those few online publications that are able to get away with charging for their content (or at least for a good portion of it) — WSJ, The Economist, The New Yorker, The Financial Times — aren’t simply providers of mainstream news. They’re specialists. The New York Times isn’t a specialist. There are many thousands of places online you can obtain, at no cost, the Times’s core products, non-specialist news and analysis. Why pay for it when others are giving it away?
Of course, the New York Times does charge for a modest portion of its online content. But I’m skeptical about how successful it’s been, and I’d be surprised if they were able to keep the joys of Paul Krugman or Maureen Dowd away from the general public indefinitely. Not that there don’t exist pirate sites where one can find the Times’s columnists for free, of course. But that’s one of the big problems for them. Keeping their top-shelf opinion behind pay walls risks making them irrelevant. I’ve usually found Krugman, for instance, to be an infuriating but highly interesting read, but he just doesn’t seem to be the same must read he was a few years back, because his influence has diminished. So, if one were in that category of persons who might actually contemplate paying to read Krugman, there’s less and less reason to do so. The Times has foolishly allowed one its principal calling cards — influence — to atrophy.