Monday, March 21, 2011

Media writers appear don't like, and are confused by NYT paywall approach; industry veterans are not surprised

The reaction from media writers to the details of the New York Times metered paywall were predictable; I am quite sure NYT publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. expected this. There was no way any announcement, either instituting a paywall, or announcing that the paper was punting, would have resulted in a major of media writers approving of the move. Like Philadelphia sports fans, media writers would boo Santa Claus.

Most of the criticism centers around the math: why does it cost $5 more per four week period of time to acquire access to the iPad app versus the iPhone app? (Probably because the iPad approximates print more than does a smartphone app), why is it that it appears that the NYT doesn't appear to be charging for the web? ($15 for web + iPhone, $20 for web and iPad, $35 for both iPhone and iPad, as well as the web -- that makes it look like they are just charging for iOS and Android devices, and nothing for the web.)
GigaOM's Mathew Ingram writes that, in his view, the plan is backward-looking, protecting print at all costs (after all, you get all electronic versions of the NYT for free if you subscribe to the print paper). He is right, but he shouldn't be surprised.

In an early post on this site, back in January of 2010, I wrote about the rumor that there was an on-going turf war at the Times regarding iPad pricing. Circulation wanted the iPad app priced at print levels, while digital operations wanted lower pricing. Assuming the rumors were true as reported by Gawker's Valleywag, and they ring true to me, then the solution worked out in time for the iPad's launch April 3rd of last year, must have been totally unsatisfying: the iPad app launched with no cost attached to it at all, but the content was limited -- no one got what they wanted, especially readers.

Ryan Tate, the writer of that piece a year ago, seemed surprised at the level of bureaucratic infighting at the NYT. As I said then, and feel now, those that look at these turf wars must have never worked at a paper in management -- they are the norm.

At many papers, the circulation director has an oversized amount of influence: a paper's health is often associated with its increasing, or declining circulation numbers. While many like to point to the web as the source of the decline in newspaper print circulation levels, but major shifts in pricing, or distribution geography, can dramatically influence those final ABC numbers just as much as changes in reading habits. No circulation manager would like the idea of losing, say, 100,000 print customers to a tablet edition, no matter what the cost savings unless they can be assured that their ABC audit will look about the same.

(Disclosure: I was, briefly, a circulation director at a smallish daily newspaper in Northern California -- it was part of a bizarre experiment designed to train me to be a publisher, which I quickly became, elsewhere.)

So is Ingram right? Is the NYT paywall backward-looking? I wouldn't say that the management team at the Times is backward-looking, per se -- compared to most newspapers, the Times is one of the most forward-looking in the industry -- but the industry as a whole is not very creative outside its comfort-zone of print, and the Times is no different. At most papers, people with experience outside of the daily newspaper environment are looked at with distain; those who left the daily grind of the metro newspaper world to work in digital media, or other forms of print, are looked at with suspicion. No wonder then that decisions made regarding the web, mobile or tablets appear strange to outsiders, especially those consumers who are younger and more often than not looking for electronic media products rather than a home delivered one.

The problem the Times has, as do so many other newspapers, is that they continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. Launching their iPad app as a free app, with limited content was almost the identical move made by papers when they launched their websites. Not only were the sites free, but it took a while for editors to develop a web-first attitude towards getting the news online before it hit print.

Instead, the executives at the Times announced that they would institute a paywall sometime in the future -- one year later we know what it will look like.

Interestingly, the National Football League solved the problem faced by publishers long ago. A football game can only be seen locally if the game is a sell-out, otherwise it is blacked out. Imagine if the NFL ran the Times: web access would be limited to paying customers in the NY area, but would be free nationally. If enough local customers pay, then the website would be opened up locally.

Football fans complain about the system, especially when their teams are not very good and seldom sell-out the stadium, but they understand the system -- someone's got to pay for it to work.

More later, much more, I'm sure.