From March 28th (and effective immediately in Canada), the New York Times will join the Wall Street Journal, The Times and several other news publications in charging for their online content, and I couldn’t disagree with this practice more. Here’s why.
Firstly, it doesn’t make sense from a readership angle. The whole point of publications offering content on the Internet is to provide it to those who are either unwilling or unable to buy a physical newspaper, and it also has the advantage that the content can potentially reach a worldwide audience. I don’t think there is a downside to giving almost 2 billion people the opportunity to become regular consumers of your content. But as soon as you cordon off your articles behind a subscription, your online readership is going to drop incredibly sharply – in fact, when The Times in the UK switched to a subscription system in 2010 they lost almost 90% of their readers.
Secondly then, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from the financial point of view. The usual reason for switching to a pay-to-view system is to bring in the revenue which advertisements on the site aren’t making up, but are you really going to achieve that by losing nine out of every ten readers? How many people will really considering your website worth paying for when there are hundreds of other top-quality news publications out there which can be read for free? After all, news is news no matter who’s reporting it.
Most importantly however, I simply believe information on the Internet should be free. I can’t stress that enough. Just like software – and I sit here typing this article in OpenOffice, ready to publish it using an open-source content management system – information should be accessible to everyone so that it can be passed on, shared, improved upon and used to better the world. By restricting access to information you are very much hindering that progress.
Now admittedly, the NYT has stated that its paywall won’t be completely impenetrable. Non-subscribers will be able to view 20 articles a month for free, which is probably enough for someone who doesn’t read the paper regularly. People will also be allowed to view a certain number of articles each day which they have followed links for – so if I come across a NYT article which has been linked by someone on Twitter, for example, then I will be able to view it by using the link. Something the NYT doesn’t seem to have considered is that this means I could just use a search engine to find any article I fancy reading, and get to it that way; although it has been reported that a limit for this practice will be placed on Google, nothing has been said about Bing, Blekko, Alta Vista or any other search tool.
For those few who will subscribe, there will be a choice of pricing plans ranging from $15-35 a month. Anyone subscribing to the physical newspaper will also be able to access online content for free, which is somewhat pointless.
So will we see a successful transition to paid content for America’s most widely read online newspaper? Or will they eventually be forced to recant and open up once more, just like they did with their TimesSelect system in 2007?