Why I Don't Love The NY Times's New Pay Plan

After much to-ing and fro-ing, The New York Times finally committed last week to a plan to start charging readers of its website for some of the articles they read. And, as with most events preceded by enormous buildup, it was a bit of a disappointment.The model the Times settled on is what's known as metering, which is a bit of a misnomer. "Metering" makes it sounds like the Times will be tracking how many pages you view and then sending you an itemized bill at the end of the month. The actual system the paper will employ is more akin to the way a friendly drug dealer operates: a certain amount of free product up front, and then you have to pay. (Unlike the pusher man, however, the Times will renew the free allowance every month.)

The alternative was a "premium membership" model, under which the Times would continue to give away the sorts of digital content now available while attempting to entice its most loyal customers into a paid club that would confer certain benefits. Just what those benefits might be has never been specified; it could be anything from free tote bags, a la NPR, to live events like the ones the Times already runs under its TimesTalks banner, to cruises like the ones offered by The Nation and The Weekly Standard, where readers have an opportunity to mingle with columnists and other luminaries.

This model has its drawbacks. Most obviously, it's something that, at its most ambitious, will only ever tap a tiny percentage of Times readers, whereas a metering regime could, in theory, be gradually expanded until it encompasses most or even all of them.

But by announcing that it won't begin charging anyone until 2011, the Times has already, in effect, tipped its hand. If the revenues the paper expected to generate from metering were substantial enough to be crucial to its survival, you can bet the Times would not be moving at such a leisurely pace. Since the anticipated revenues are apparently smallish -- and outsiders who have crunched the numbers mostly agree with that assessment -- a membership model is, practically speaking, no worse than a metered one.

And metering has serious flaws of its own. Above all, by affecting only those who read the Times online most often, it punishes the paper's most engaged and attentive users and rewards those who figure how to game the system, whether by finding the chinks in the pay wall or simply by curbing their usage. (This problem of backward incentives is why I've suggested newspapers ought to consider copying the way video games work, encouraging their users to obsess.)

Then there are the hundreds of small decisions to consider, such as whether reading Times-affiliated blogs will count toward the monthly quota, whether to exempt referrals from outside links and search engines, and so on. Whatever the Times decides, the result will be a confusing, byzantine, ad hoc mess. The membership model is the picture of simplicity by comparison.

But what I like most about the membership idea is the way it would broadcast confidence in the Times's future. In the past, chairman Arthur Sulzberger and CEO Janet Robinson often articulated a belief that the Times would, in the long run, benefit from the crisis now afflicting newspapers -- that its indispensability would allow it to survive, and that, as the "last man standing," it would actually benefit from the disappearance of other outlets, absorbing the ad dollars and readers they left behind. If you really believe that -- and I don't see any reason not to -- what better way to accelerate the Times's ultimate ascendancy than by keeping it free when other papers, including all those owned by Rupert Murdoch, were putting up pay walls? What if the Times were not only the best newspaper on the planet but also the freest?
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