New York Times to charge for access

The Wall Street Journal reports that the New York Times is considering a new approach to providing access to its news articles. Currently, you can view any article less than a week old. After that, you have to pay an absurd $2.95 to see the article.

Under the new scheme, you would pay $50/year to get access to any article in the past 365 days. They are apparently also considering an alternate scheme that would give you full access to the whole NYT archive.

With newspaper circulation in free fall, the Times is only one of numerous papers that must be trying to figure out what to do. While "the Internet" is often blamed for the general decline in newspaper circulation, I think the problem is more basic. I travel a lot, and try to read local papers wherever I go. What I see is a general lack of innovation, creativity, and news. I see this as the ClearChannel problem (ClearChannel owns 1000+ radion stations in the U.S.). As large chains have bought out more and more papers, those papers look more and more alike. Bean counters at the corporate level cut local staffs and budgets, force papers to use more syndicated content, and the result is dull newspapers with all the same (word for word) stories you can find on the Internet.

Newspapers don't look that different than they did one hundred years ago--the big innovation of the last twenty years is color pictures. I'm actually bullish on the future of newspapers; we still need someone to edit the news for us. In fact, I would argue that the role of newspapers--editing the news and providing quality control--is more important now with so many alternate sources available to us. Who has time to check dozens of Web sites daily? Papers condense many news sources and help us sort out the important issues. Newspapers and TV news will never again be primary sources of information, but I see the editorial function as still very relevant.

As for the Times and their $50/year subscription, I don't think it makes sense. Most people won't subscribe at that level, and I think they are missing a huge market opportunity. In the Internet age, it is the market, more than ever, that determines the value of something. Too many businesses are trying to set costs based on past Manufacturing Economy metrics of value. The distribution cost of an online NY Times article is nearly zero--so small that is barely measurable.

Here's the math. Which would you rather have? A million subscribers at $50/year, or 20 million subscribers at $10/year? I'd rather have the latter, because I'd have four times as much money in hand. For $10/year, or less than the price of one large pizza, you'll get a lot more subscribers. And a lot more money.

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