Janet Coats articulated better than I did the problem with the New York Times paywall: It reveals, she says, a “vision very much preoccupied with the rearview mirror.”
Janet, former editor of the Tampa Tribune and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (owned by the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group), notes how quickly last week’s paywall announcement followed Times Editor Bill Keller’s column about aggregation (which required a second attempt).
She recalled how many times her work as a reporter at a smaller paper had been “’aggregated’ without credit by the big boys,” (a point I had made on Twitter).
But Janet tied the Keller column and the paywall together neatly. Both, she wrote, “are built around the idea that information needs to just move the way we want it to, damn it. They are built around the idea of control. They don’t reflect the real world of digital information at all. They reflect strategies built around protecting print …”
In interest of disclosure, I should note that Janet quotes me favorably in her blog post. I also should do more here than simply aggregate Janet (with credit). So I want to add a point of my own:
Bloomberg reports that the Times spent $40 million to $50 million developing its system to collect money from its most loyal users who read the Times through its home page, while leaving the Times open to free access through search and free linking through social media.
While I’m skeptical of that figure, there is no question that the Times did spend a lot of money, time and corporate priority on this plan. The Times’ own story about the development of the plan makes clear that it was costly and cumbersome.
The Knight News Challenge gives away $5 million a year to fund innovative projects in journalism, launching projects with huge potential, such as Spot.Us, NowSpots, DocumentCloud (a Times project, I should note), Ushahidi and EveryBlock. Think about that: If Bloomberg is right, the Times spent the equivalent of eight to 10 years of Knight News Challenge grants on a backward-looking project. That is a shame, even if the plan generates the wishful-thinking $100 million a year that Steven Brill projects or the more likely (but still optimistic) $78 million that Ken Doctor projects.
I just wish that the Times had spent all that time, energy and money on something that would be moving forward, rather than trying to resurrect the pay model of print. Since this model is essentially a voluntary payment (anyone who can use Twitter and/or Google never has to pay), why didn’t the Times develop a more forward-looking voluntary model, such as a membership program (as suggested by Steve Outing) or a Times-scale model of Kachingle or Spot.Us? Or a significant advance in daily deals or direct sales for your business customers?
I’m with Janet on this:
I won’t support any more the delusional thinking that we can build a future on what worked in the past.