The Biggest Flaw in NYT Pay Plan: It’s Backward-Looking

I didn’t get a chance to write about the launch of the New York Times (s nyt) subscription plan last week for a number of reasons (okay, I was on a beach) but I’ve since read most of what others have written about it, and the general consensus seems to be that it is a) confusing, and b) a sign of obvious desperation by the NYT. But while both of these things are arguably true, my big problem with the newspaper’s money grab is that it is fundamentally backward-looking. More than anything else, it feels like a defensive move to buy some time while the paper figures out what it wants to be when it grows up.

There’s no question that the details of the plan (which is being rolled out as a beta test in Canada first) are somewhat bewildering, as Felix Salmon of Reuters has noted: occasional readers get to see 20 “items” for free in a month — with the definition of an “item” subject to the restrictions described in the newspaper’s FAQ on the topic — and then they have to sign up for a plan. Paying $15 a month gets you access to the website and the iPhone app, but not the iPad app. For $20 a month you get both the NYT website and the iPad app, but you don’t get a subscription through the iPhone app. If you want access across all platforms, you have to pay $35 a month.

Once you get past these nuances, however, it becomes fairly obvious that the pay plan has little or nothing to do with promoting the iPad app or the iPhone app, or even the newspaper’s website. Instead, it seems pretty clearly designed to protect the subscription numbers for the printed version of the Times: if you subscribe to virtually any version of the paper, including the Sunday-only option, everything digital comes along with it for nothing. In other words, you can pay as little as $30 a month and get the entire contents of the newspaper in whatever form you want.

In that sense, the Times pay plan seems to be motivated by the same impulse as other paywalls at newspapers such as the Times and the Sunday Times in Britain — where News Corp. erected subscription plans last year — and at New York’s Newsday, which launched one in 2009. As I pointed out in a post at the time Rupert Murdoch was planning to launch paywalls at his British papers, the main point of these walls was to keep people in, not keep people out. Since print continues to deliver the majority of revenue for newspapers such as the Times and the NYT, it’s crucial to keep readers from cancelling their print subscriptions and simply moving to read everything for free online.

Is this a compelling financial rationale for a pay wall or subscription plan? Perhaps. There’s no question that, as the New York Times admitted when it announced the new plan, newspapers need to find new sources of revenue to replace declining advertising income. But I’m skeptical that the pay plan is going to produce the $100 million or so in new revenue that some seem to think it will.

Even more than that, however, the Times’ subscription model seems fundamentally reactionary, and displays a disappointing lack of imagination. The newspaper seems to be saying: “What we do is valuable, and you have been getting it for free, so it’s time to pay up.” Some readers may accept that rationale, and sign up — but others are going to go elsewhere, or reduce their NYT consumption to links that arrive from blogs, Twitter and Facebook, which the newspaper has (wisely) decided will be exempt from the subscription wall. And so the paper will continue to use its new digital assets primarily to subsidize its declining print business.

The success of aggregators like The Huffington Post — which NYT executive editor Bill Keller recently ranted about — is only the most recent sign that the way many people consume their news has changed forever. It is no longer about picking a specific outlet like the Times, and then relying solely on that for news and opinion about the world. Traditional media like the NYT have lost the control they historically had over distribution and consumption, and attempts to reimpose that scarcity are futile.

The exemption for Twitter and other social media is a sign that the Times understands this on some level at least, but why not go further? Why not offer people a subscription to special Twitter direct messages or Facebook Q&A sessions with writer Nick Kristof as he reports on the uprisings in the Middle East? What about offering real-world events that involve some of its most prominent voices, where people can meet them and network with each other? The music industry seems to be waking up to the fact that individual songs are a loss leader that drives demand for other services, but the New York Times is still trying to charge people monthly fees for undifferentiated news content.

Will the subscription plan bring in some money? No doubt. But putting meters on its existing content is not going to save the Times. In order to really take advantage of the revolution that is underway in the content business, it needs to start thinking about what it does in a whole new way, and there are few signs of that happening any time soon.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Giuseppe Bognanni and jphilipg