The New York Times Paywall

This week the details of The New York Times online subscription and paywall model were finally revealed to the public. It’s huge news for both future of online journalism and for myself on a personal level; I’ve spent more than a decade considering the Times an essential resource, from the print version in my early college days to the iPhone and iPad apps in heavy use today. That said, after pouring over the details, I’m very dissatisfied with the Times model, and I feel strongly the paywall will fail for three reasons: it’s confusing and complex, it provides no added benefits or perks for paid subscribers versus what’s available today and the monthly cost is too high.

I’ll go into each of these points in greater depth, but it’s important to first note I believe strongly a subscription model makes sense. The existing internet standard of advertising can’t support coverage with such international breadth and depth that the Times provides; something has to give. That said, a subscription plan as poorly thought out as the Times, especially after 14 months of internal deliberation, is inexcusable.

Confusing and overly complex

The Times pay plan changes per month based on which devices or apps access content, the lowest tier ($15 per month) for web and smartphone app access, the highest ($35) giving access to the web site, smartphone app and tablet app. Large variance in price aside (why double the price just to use the iPad app when I already have full web and iPhone access?) this is far too convoluted to base a pricing plan off of. Especially online, simple, easily understandable plans tend to succeed. Take Netflix: one flat rate for unlimited streaming, pay successively higher amounts to check out more DVDs at a time. The highly successful iTunes Store charges a flat dollar per song.

In contrast, the Times isn’t charging more for additional features or content, rather charging more for additional access points. Why can a subscriber read on the browser on their iPad, but not on the the NY Times iPad app for the same rate? Why just the iPad or the iPhone apps at cheaper rates, but not both? It’s true some would argue the iOS New York Times apps do provide device exclusive content, but I’d argue given the quality of the apps (more on that later) that this is a stretch.

Then there’s the policy for non subscribers: 20 articles a month, but if you enter the Times site from certain social media outlets or Google searches, that apparently won’t count against your total, nor will articles on select pages. Is this policy going to be made very clear to the user, many of whom are non-technical? I suspect the more likely outcome will be a large set of users confused and angered why a link on Twitter or Google works great, but a direct link from a friend’s email or a popular blog is blocked because it’s counted against their already maxed out monthly limit. On the flip side, there’s another set of users that will exploit Twitter and Google to navigate around the paywall entirely.

I’d even argue that the Times’ classification of a month as four weeks or 28 days, while boilerplate with paper subscriptions, is outdated for the internet age. Consider almost any other online service; a month is full month, subscribers pay the bill on the same day of the month, and there are twelve payments a year. Not so with the Times: it’s actually 13 “months” a year (52 weeks divided by 4.) It’s all an irritating classification that could turn off a lot of people.

No added benefits or innovation

One of the highest barriers for the Times to overcome comes down to one word: free. The New York Times web site and apps have been free for years. Suddenly paying a minimum of nearly $200 a year for the same content is a hard bargain for many.

The emphasis here is on “same content”. It appears that being a subscriber doesn’t provide any extras – even the banner advertising will likely stay. Why doesn’t the Times sweeten the pot a bit here? There’s an incredibly smart brain trust within the organization; innovative, exclusive content and downloads, or even something simple like cutting back subscriber ads could be a serious selling point for the paper.

Same content also extends to the current iteration of their iPhone and iPad apps, which, in my experience, are buggy and crash prone. Functionality is limited as well – it’s mostly just the same text as the web site, reformatted to better match the device. Major improvements are needed before the Times can justify a premium price for their mobile apps.

Too expensive

I’m aware the costs of keeping the worldwide journalistic scope of the New York Times afloat are significant, but I still feel $15 to $35 a month is a bit high in today’s market. Consider the online competition, and in this group I’m looking to the pricing plans of other online subscription services like Rdio and Netflix, all of which start at the $10 a month range. Perhaps pitting the pricing of one of the world’s best newspapers against movie streaming is unfair, but I don’t see it that way; in a sea of free internet content with everything one click away, HD video, apps, gaming and yes, even quality journalism, are in the same competitive landscape fighting over people’s attention and credit cards.

It’s a hard call, but I’d suggest a flat $10 per month for unlimited content, regardless of the application or device used, perhaps charging a bit more a la carte for a small percentage of power users that dig deeply into the paper’s archives or other areas. That’s more expensive than the $5 or less online impulse range that has become synonymous with cheap iPhone games, movie rentals and other disposable content, a price point the Times is ill equipped to survive and distinguish itself on. It’s also however lower than other online newspaper paywalls (e.g. The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times) which should ramp up their subscription base to an growing, worldwide audience and get users (especially the burgeoning iPad 2 population) onboard with the idea of paying for online journalism. Prices can also increase slowly over time; Netflix and iTunes were able to do so and still enjoy continued success.