The New York Times is undoubtedly one of the best sources of news in the world, if not the best. But last week, the world’s best news source went from being available absolutely free online to charging its most prolific readers.
In case you have been living under a rock for the last year, NYTimes.com put a paywall up on its content, allowing visitors to the site no more than 20 free articles per month. I’m not sure if the NYTimes gave actual numbers out when they released their plan, but one can imagine that the number of visitors that read more than 20 articles per month is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the NYTimes online audience. That would mean that about 80 to 90 percent of the NYTimes visitors (and maybe page views) would remain the same.
Or does it?
I’ll get to that in a second.
However, I first want to go off on the fact that the NYTimes is running ad after ad about how valuable their content is now that they are charging for it. Wouldn’t the best time to have told people that you have this wonderful product have been before you started hijacking them? How on earth am I, a vivid reader of the news site, supposed to believe that the NYTimes is this great bearer of all things news the second after they decided to start charging me for it?
It’s ass-backwards when you think about it. When the NYTimes was free, they were proud to tout their unbelievable readership, but the ads about their quality were few and far in between. That’s not to say they didn’t put forth some effort, but never the kind of effort that they have put forth to market the paywall. I’ve seen ads on subways, on mobile abs, and on full-page takeovers of popular news websites not named the New York Times.
Now, I don’t exactly have my MBA or anything, so I could be way off base here, but if I knew a year in advance that I had this wonderful product that I was going to start charging for, wouldn’t I want to remind people about how superior my product is before I started charging them?
It’s common sense. You had the readers on the hook. The page views were probably growing month over month. The content was probably getting even better as the NYTimes.com got more and more digitally savvy over the last couple of years. And other news sources all around them are dying a slow, painful death that should have propped the NYTimes even higher. Yet the NYTimes just sat back and designed their paywall (reportedly, for way too much money) and decided to market it to me after the paywall up.
Well, it’s kinda, sorta too late, NYTimes. I love your website. I especially loved it when it was free. And even though I knew a year in advance that you were putting this paywall up, you probably would have had me pulling out my credit card had you reminded me over the last couple of months just how good you have been to me, as well as what I have been waiting on.
It’s the classic bait and switch, right? Plenty of websites across the internet are doing it. From news and games sites, to content and even porn sites, the online bait and switch is about as common as the cheap banner ad that the NYTimes no longer thinks it can live off of. All you do, is give your visitor a ton of free content, show them the best stuff, give them more of the best stuff, and when they reach the point of no return, you tell them they have to pay for the rest.
ESPN does this really well on ESPN.com. You go to the site, if you like the content they keep having you come back. You learn more as a fan, become interested in various views, and you even get educated about your favorite sports. Now you want deeper and better knowledge then what they’ve already been giving you, right? Well, you can pay for it! Like the Wall Street Journal, certain ESPN articles are available behind a paywall. They’re aimed at a very highly, educated, almost nerdy sports fan, but they will reel you in if you sign up. ESPN makes their viewers a pretty sexy offer too, giving them online access, the Magazine subscription and event information all with a single subscription. For the ardent sports fan, they’ve almost made it an essential buy.
But the NYTimes is going the other route, one that I don’t agree with. That’s not to say that ESPN’s way is the only way to do things, but the NYTimes is certainly the way not to do things.
Sell me on your brand when it’s free, not just when you want to sell me something!
This is a major problem with media companies. They don’t tell us about their worth until it’s too late. Television series save their best episodes for the last week of the season when they may have already been cancelled. Other content providers practically gave their stuff to Netflix before realizing that they rented the goods out far too cheaply. And Rupert Murdoch puts up a paywall on the London Times after years of free articles being published, only to see 90% of his audience vaporized.
Know your worth NYTimes, and when you figure it out, tell us right away, not in your last ditch effort to save your fledgling business. The times are a changing, and apparently so is your price. Had you told me how great you are when I was reading you everyday, perhaps I’d be willing to change with the times.
Which brings me back to the issue we had at the beginning—technically, you would think that if the NYTimes planned to only charge 10 to 20 percent of its audience, that they would maintain 80% of their audience. However, if people are like me, I’m almost afraid to go to the site. I don’t want to get caught up in some wonderful part of the site only to hit some paywall before I move on to the next article. Before, the NYTimes was my default choice, now I’m not sure that it is. Now the bevy of free sites out there come to mind a little more often since I know that at any point, I could hit the NYTimes paywall.
Of course, thoughts like those could be cancelled out by the digitally savvy who know that you can read any article on the NYTimes if you search for it in Google. But I’m not sure the number of digitally savvy news junkies outweighs the number of people who are disgusted by the fact that the NYTimes thinks its stuff smells better than everybody else’s.
So maybe, just maybe, the NYTimes doesn’t assure itself 80% of its readership. Maybe low-volume users are turned off and go somewhere else. Maybe right-leaning readers no long want anything to do with a newly seeming profiteering media company. I don’t know. I don’t the ramifications of it all, and perhaps the example of ESPN I gave isn’t the answer. But as much as I would love to see a paywall succeed online, I don’t know that this one will, and if it doesn’t, maybe the price of the NYTimes isn’t the only thing that will be something of the past—maybe the NYTimes, as it exists today, will be too.