The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Don’t cry for the Times

For about a year, I felt like I was the sports king of the world. I had just won my newspaper’s fantasy football league. The Denver Broncos had just beaten the favored Green Bay Packers to win the Super Bowl, and I could follow it all with my newhans-mug.jpg subscription to ESPN.com’s Insider package. Actually, I don’t think it was called Insider back in 1998, but it still gave me access to all the top columnists, the trade rumor mills, and the fantasy sports tip sheet all for $5 a month.

I don’t remember exactly why I canceled my account. Maybe it was bitterness over not making the fantasy playoffs the next year. Maybe it was just a one-year trial offer. (I’m notorious for signing up for those.) But I do know I’ve never really missed it. In fact, every time I click on an ESPN column and am rudely taken instead to the Insider page, I curse ESPN and wonder what kind of idiots actually pay for that junk.

It came as no surprise to me then that the New York Times decided to cancel its Times Select service after less than a year. I’m actually a subscriber, but I get a free student account, so I guess it doesn’t count. The only premium stuff I ever use are the archive (which I can also get free through Lexis/Nexis) and Nicholas Kristof’s columns.

For a long time, I’ve suspected a online subscription system wouldn’t work. But I thought if anyone could make it work, it would be the Times. The company did amass more than 227,000 subscribers, but I guess that wasn’t enough.

The big question the Times, and any other company that wants to charge for its online offerings must ask is what the products they place behind the subscription wall are really worth. When I really started looking at what I used ESPN for, I realized that it was hardly worth the $5 a month because I could get nearly the same scouting reports and trade rumors from other sites for free. My Times Select account was handy enough for the odd instance when I wanted to show one of Kristof’s Darfur videos in class or I didn’t want to make the trek to the library (or mess with a VPN at home).

I think the temptation now is to say the Times has proven the subscription model online doesn’t work, and I think that’s an exaggeration. Human nature hasn’t changed so much in the Internet age that people are no longer willing to pay for something they value. What news organizations have to do instead is seriously and honestly address what the value of their products is. I wouldn’t mind paying 25 or 50 cents for an archived article I print myself, but $3 is way too much.

In fact, I think Jeremy was the first person I’ve heard to suggest that news organizations look for ways to charge smaller amounts for individual articles or news services, rather than monthly subscription fees or faced accounts with $10 minimums. I’d love to see someone take that chance and see what people really are willing to pay.

Maybe that’s the next step for the Times, or for ESPN. Any maybe this won’t be the only way to recoup the $10 million a year the Times stands to lose in online subscription revenue, but that just means that maybe they’ll have to find something else of value they can mine. If they open enough possibilities, they just might find something for everyone not one thing that everyone has to swallow.

It kind of sounds like what we are trying to demonstrate with citizen journalism, doesn’t it?

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September 19, 2007 - Posted by | From The Cyberbrains, Hans Meyer

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