Friday, January 22, 2010

On The Gray Lady Becoming a Meter Maid

It was announced this week that The New York Times plans to do what the opportunistic bartender does: buy the customer a round of shots so that they'll get comfortable and stick around for a few more--paid--rounds. Speaking from personal experience (on both sides of the bar), this ploy usually works but I believe that, in this instance, The Times is at risk of disregarding what every bartender knows: the sober consumer is hard to retain and there's always another bar opening up down the block.

By instituting a pay model that essentially punishes heavy users, The Times is in danger of losing their significant place in the cultural discourse. The goal of any major media outfit nowadays, from Facebook to TMZ to CNN, is simple: become a tab on everyone's browser. In order to increase its revenue, The Times must increase the reasons for a user to stay on its website. A flat, uniform meter system is just one big, looming reason for users not to stay put.

There is an arrogance inherent in The Times' meter plan in that it presupposes that people will always want The Times' content. Reacting to the announcement, Times media columnist David Carr wrote, "Access can be gradually ramped up or down depending on macro trends in the market. Given the dynamic state of the advertising business and how quickly things change on the Web, not so dumb when you think about it." The Times seems to firmly believe that it can operate like a natural resource such as electricity--adjusting prices depending on a changing market. The problem with this is that eventually an audience squeeze will be created. As users go to the site less and less, The Times will have to decrease the amount of content they offer for free, further decreasing usage.

A flat meter system disregards the variable values of content. In order to skirt paying for Times content, readers will save up their allotted usage by going elsewhere for generic news such as sports scores, crime stories, and election results. This will rapidly decrease The Times' market share (or, one may say, "discourse share") as well as the amount of opportunities to entice users to pay. Not all Times content is created equal: movie reviews, business columns, runway photos, and infographics are just a few examples of Times content that has a uniqueness that makes their value obvious.

A slew of young companies, from Flickr to Skype, have been successful in offering users free basic packages and generating revenue from premium services that have obvious value. The Times must commit to establishing premium content and promoting it.

Every mainstream media company, from record labels to television networks, has seen their business decline in the past decade because the number of information and entertainment outlets has increased exponentially. A meter system will only further fracture the audience. With the mass consumer adoption of Twitter, RSS readers, and news aggregators, The Times' value as a compendium of news is diminishing. That said, they still generate a huge amount of traffic and their brand equity is among the best in the news business. The Times should focus now on optimizing their significant standing in the media landscape (while they still have it) and become an even more fundamental part of a user's content lifestyle.

The Times' meter plan misses the mark because it focuses on how the users will pay and disregards why the users will pay. The Times can succeed by creating unique content and platforms that users can't live without. By building out their blog interface, producing web-savvy video, inviting high-profile guest columnists, launching multiple unique mobile applications, and creating interactive environments such as sports pools or real-time event commentary, The Times can increase usage while also converting free users to paid users.

I first subscribed to The New York Times as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin and I have been a 7-days-a-week subscriber ever since. I plan on being an A.O. Scott-quoting, Brian Stelter-tweeting subscriber for the foreseeable future. I just hope that The Times will implement a payment system that's more in line with their history of quality and innovation, a payment system that I can raise a glass to.

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