My no-paywall plan to save the New York Times

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Ian Lurie Jan 19 2010

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Update: The New York Times just announced their new ‘metered pricing’ plan, which does the opposite of my idea by charging the more loyal readers more than the one-stop lookie-loos, and offering no reward whatsoever. Read it here.

Actually, it’s my plan for how the New York Times can save itself. First, a little history:
Back in June I wrote about search engines’ steady move toward aggregation, and how we all have to adjust.
Today, Jordan McCollum over at Marketing Pilgrim summarized a few reports rife with news publication hand-wringing. Apparently, only 56% of folks reading Google news ever click through.
News publications believe that this means Google is cutting off readers: Why click through to, say, The New York Times, when you can get all the news you need right there on the Google News search results page?
The New York Times’ answer to the fact that they can’t get enough readers to their content is…
To put all their content behind a pay wall.
Now, I’m no Rupert Murdoch, but this does not seem like a winning formula.

The model’s changed

The New York Times and publications like them are still playing in a world where they:

  1. Build a list of paying subscribers;
  2. Mail them newspapers;
  3. Charge them for ‘em;
  4. Sell ads based on that list of paying subscribers.

The model’s changed, guys. There’s no list of subscribers any more. It’s gone. 10 years gone. You’ve had time to get through denial, anger, negotiation and acceptance.
You can put up a pay wall. Then you’ll lose pageviews and ad dollars faster than you gain paying subscribers.
You can keep going as you are, with crappy SEO and no perceptible online content strategy. And online-focused news sites will eat you alive.
Or, you can change the game, stop chasing specialized online publications, give your subscribers what they want, and make more money.

Build an action economy

Enough with the engagement economy, or the attention economy, or whatever the hell the pundits are calling it this week.
Build an action economy:

  1. Create a way to track, reliably, how individual readers move through your site. You have lots of smart people. You can do it.
  2. Restrict content access, but only for, say, 40% of your content. Let folks see general news for nothing. Close access to niche content.
  3. When I come to your site, track what I do. Give me credit if I watch a whole video ad, or read a particular story, or click more than N pages.
  4. If I come to restricted content, tell me I’ve already earned enough credit to read the story, or that I can earn enough by taking certain actions, like watching an ad.
  5. Also tell me that I can, say, enter my cell number and buy credits and have the charge show up on my cell phone bill. Or that I can text a specific code to do the same thing.
  6. Go to advertisers. Show them exactly how many people watched the video, or signed up for the webinar, or downloaded the whitepaper. Use that to improve accountability and make your case to sell more ads.

Even folks who don’t buy credits still earn them by reading. It’s like FourSquare for publications. If they want to keep those credits, they just punch in their cell number, or create a unique tracking code. They have an incentive to return and keep taking action. Eventually they earn enough to read the niche content they want by spending the credits they earned. When they run out, they can buy more or start over.
You love it, because readers can get a look at your great content and become increasingly loyal over time. And, you don’t have to drive away 90% of your readership with a pay wall. By the time most readers get to restricted content, they’ve at least earned enough credits to read that one story.
And driven readers can buy access to stories quickly and easily, story by story.
Advertisers love it, because this is a system that turns advertising into a reward generator, instead of a punishment.

An honest system and an ecology

This is an honest system. Sure, readers may play ads and ignore them to earn credits. Just like they flip past ads in print newspapers, or tune out during commercials on the radio.
It’s up to advertisers to develop clever, compelling content. That’s how marketing works.
And, multiple publications can partner, so that readers can pool credits and get access to more and more content.
And, ad sales are no longer based on ‘impressions’ or ‘clicks’. They’re based on actions.
Betchya earn more money online this way than you do right now.

Just try something, OK?

Scoff if you want. Dismiss the whole idea. Just try something, OK? Because I don’t want journalism to become 50% Fox News and 50% Joe Blogger.

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8 Comments

  1. I like your thinking and creativity, but I think the credit/micro-payment system would be too confusing for the average person.
    Hence, the Times would probably see lots of readers for their free content and very-very few for the 40% paid content.
    You’re definitely right re: newspapers whining. The business has changed. Adapt, experiment, but please shut up with the whining that’s based on a business model that no longer exists.

  2. Ian

    @Jeff It is complicated, and you’re right, very few will sign up. The real value will come from increasingly measurable reader interaction with ads and advertisers, and a strong incentive on readers’ part to participate. Remember, they’ll earn credits by simply reading and sticking around.

  3. Just read The NY Times’s plan. Gack! Mr. Sulzberger (if you’re listening), this is what I’ll do when you implement your plan. I will read articles up to whatever limit you set. Then I will stop.
    Ian, how about if they modify your idea somewhat? Skip the payment (in cash or credits) part. Offer better metrics to advertisers, as you noted in point #6, as an incentive to show how well the ad is (or isn’t) working – and really working. Impressions are BS – clicks and downloads rule (says Ms. Direct Marketing 1988).
    Make the point system, if you have one, for watching ads or videos, or whatever, visible. Offer points for ads, and also for comments. Give badges to people with most comments or at different levels. Perhaps people at higher levels get extra privileges of some kind, or extra access to special goodies (tour of the NYT building or something).
    The Times (and other newspapers) did really well when Obama won and when he was inaugurated (one year ago today) – because the paper was something special that day – a souvenir that couldn’t be replicated online.
    If they want to survive, they will have to make the paper (or interacting with it) special.

  4. Syzlak

    Pffft.
    Put ads in your RSS feed. Then cover every story with interstitials and moving flash ads. Oh, and charge users to view the photos for stories that relate specifically to the photos.
    …that, or allow users to customize their NYT for a minimal recurring fee. All access provided, but only the stories you want. Ads would still be present and multimedia could require an additional fee for every 10 viewed.

  5. Mabel

    Whether it is the music, movie or journalism industry there is far too much lamenting and not enough innovating.
    I just read the Gary Vaynerchuk book and he does discuss the news business model. He suggests that aside from the external changes that internal changes are needed to shake up the business model even more. That if papers only keep core journalists and release the overhead of salaried writers they will be able to acquire per article stories from click-through-proven writers. Interesting idea.
    Not that I support more job elimination but if they keep whining and not moving this will happen anyway.

  6. Robyn

    An intriguing concept and so much better than any idea the out-of-touch ivory-tower sitters have come up with.
    It boggles the mind that companies like the NYT have not yet realized that the old models just don’t work any more. I won’t participate in a straight pay model (even though I will buy a newspaper.) And there’s no rhyme or reason to that. It’s just the way it is.
    But I *might* eventually pay for niche content that is meaningful to ME. How are you going to get me to that point?
    So it’s up to the NYT (and others) to find a way to deal with the intersection of news and internet in a way that consumers will play.

  7. Well, I thought your ideas were good enough that when I followed your link to the NYT article, I went ahead and left a comment urging them to come back here and check ‘em out.
    And I told them to say thank you afterward, too, so let me know how that goes. It’ll make me feel all powerful and stuff.

  8. After graduating from college, I really missed having access to research via academic journals that the library subscribed to. Even as a student, with a university library at my fingertips, most of the information I was looking for wasn’t something we had as a hard copy and often wasn’t available electronically through our subscriptions with journals. Thus I would endure a two to four week waiting period while information was requested, photocopied, and mailed back to me from another library.
    Many academic journal publishers maintain websites cataloging every article in each of their journals. You can browse publications, read abstracts, see authors and other works cited, but if you actually want to skim through the research, you’re expected to get it via an academic affiliation or pony up a hefty access fee. (A quick search through Google Scholar will show the depth of information trapped behind these pay walls).
    I’m aware most publishers of academic periodicals and journals aren’t exactly known for being cutting edge with their distributions, but I really wish some of them would take a stand and shake things up. I’d happily watch multiple ads or check out related journals/articles/offers if it meant I could gain access to information and research without purchasing a costly membership or paying a per article access fee. Maybe the publishing companies would even find renewed interest in their specialty fields if the information they offered wasn’t solely available in a dark library corner or behind a staunch electronic pay wall.

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