New York Times prices digital to keep print alive
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.
By Agnes T. Crane
The latest move in the digital revolution looks designed to keep the status quo. The New York Times will finally put up an online pay-wall — $15 to $35 a month for readers who click on more than 20 articles a month. That’s still cheaper than the dead tree edition every day — which costs around $50 — but not enough to create a huge incentive for inky-fingered readers, and the higher ad dollars they still attract, to switch.
Tactile romanticism, of course, still appeals to older readers, who continued to subscribe to the paper even when content was free on the web. Moreover, those bound by inertia have little incentive to ditch print for digital since current subscribers will be able to read articles from any platform. This matters not just for the Times, which is controlled by the dynastic Ochs Sulzberger family, but for all papers sensitive about prematurely killing the cash cow of print advertising.
The future, however, is pure digital. In 2010, 41 percent of U.S. readers said they got most of their news from the Web, up from 17 percent the year before, and surpassing newspapers for the first time, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet most papers are hardly in the position to shut down the presses tomorrow. The Times, for example, only gets about 17 percent of its $2.4 billion of revenue from its digital businesses.
It’s all about the hand-off, or rather, the timing. The more readers migrate online, the more valuable advertising there should become. Of course, by charging readers online, papers risk becoming less relevant since news junkies may simply migrate to where the news is still free. The Times subscription plan addresses this by keeping articles linked to by bloggers and social media sites free.
But by charging readers, the group should open up a new revenue stream, albeit one that may not be especially significant to the bottom line any time soon — though estimates range as high as $100 million in new annual sales. At the very least, its plan looks to have kept a balance that offers print subscribers little reason to bail for the time being. That’s not a terrible outcome for a business facing revolutionary change.