Is User-Pays the Wrong Way for Journalism to Succeed?

by Michael Camilleri

The following tweet flashed across my twitterstream yesterday:

The HuffPost wants you to write for free. The NYTimes wants you to pay up to $455/year to read online news. There’s got to be a better way.

I immediately tweeted back:

The NYT wants you pay (between $195 and) $455 to read the NYT. You’re welcome to read HuffPo for free as much as you want.

Gus Sentementes’ tweet was retweeted by my friend Michael Lee (@mukimu) and my response generated a back and forth between me and Michael (apologies to any of our mutual friends who, if they weren’t sick of me tweeting about what’s going on in Japan, are definitely sick of their twitterstream being flooded by me now). After about a dozen messages, I thought that it was time to ‘take this offline’1.

The discussion between Michael and I went on for a while but essentially boiled down to the idea that people are not going to pay for NYT content when other content is available for free. I disagreed, primarily for two reasons.

First, not all content is created equal. Yes, there is free content but just because something is free doesn’t mean it’s the equivalent to something that you pay for. Television seems to be an excellent example of this. Free-to-air TV and pay TV continue to coexist because there is content on pay TV that isn’t available on free-to-air TV (or isn’t available for a period of time) and people want to watch it enough to pay for it.2

Second, it’s not that expensive. US$455 might sound like a lot (it’s US$1.20 a day) but NYT is saying you’re going to have access to their website for US$195 a year. That’s less than 50 cents a day. I believe there are people out there that don’t think the New York Times is worth 50 cents a day. Fine. But what kind of reader is that type of person? Probably not the type of person who is interested in paying to see a movie, upgrading their entertainment device, going on an exotic holiday or buying a fancy car. That is, not the type of reader that advertisers in the New York Times want to reach.

I’m not 100% sure this is going to work but I disagree with Gus’ original argument. There isn’t a better way. The way that things work in the market is that, if people want something, they pay for it. I love newspapers but there is no law that states newspapers must exist for all time. If it turns out that the business models of the 20th century are ill-suited to the 21st, such is life.

  1. Yes, you’re right. I am a wanker. (Adds ‘wanker’ to the OS X dictionary.) 

  2. Now is good television the same as good journalism? I’d say it is. There are two reasons to read a newspaper. The first reason is because you just want to know what’s happened. For those with this motivation, what matters the most is timeliness of the writing. This is the end of the market where blogs are just killing newspapers. However, there is another reason to read a newspaper and that’s because you want to understand what’s happened. For those with this motivation, what matters the most is the quality of the writing. If you have to wait a bit longer, but you understand what’s going on better, then, for those people, it’s totally worth it.