Tick, tick, tick

The Observer’s John Koblin reports that the NY Times is considering putting a meter on usage of its site and charging once you’ve read too much.


They’ve spent the last 15 years trying to get people to stay longer and read more on their site and now they’re going to penalize their best customers? Readers’ inner dialogue is not hard to imagine: ‘Uh-oh, should I read that next story – and see that ad and maybe find something worth linking to and bring in other readers? It might start costing me. I’d better conserve my Times characters; they’re adding up; already read 20,000 of them. I think it’s time to go elsewhere now.’

This emotional rush to charging for charging’s sake is not only getting dumb and dumber but it’s also going to be destructive.

I fear The Times has been lunching with cable people. They should instead take Tom Evslin out for drinks. I’ve told his story here and in my book. Tom is the unsung hero of the internet who, when he ran AT&T Worldnet, was the first major ISP to go to flat-rate pricing of $19.95 a month for all you can browse. Tom took the clock off the internet. What happened when he did? We no longer worried about that tick, tick, tick. Usage exploded. The internet became part of our lives. Now The Times is thinking about turning the clock back on? If it does, that clock is ticking down its own lifespan.

Koblin says The Times is also considering creating some sort of club: give money (here’s the tin cup) and get a tote bag and a chance to watch an editorial meeting. (Having sat through too many editorial meetings elsewhere in my day, I’d say you’d have to pay me to sit in any more.)

The rush to charging is also getting sadder and sadder. It’s like watching a grandmother who has run out of money and so, to afford the drugs she needs to save her life, is looking around the attic for any heirloom she can sell on the corner.

  • Jim Puglisi

    What is you use NY Times RSS feed to scan articles? Click the one you want. Copy and paste article into Word (easier to do with Firefox). Save for later reading. Go back for more. Then go merrily on your way. Also use AdBloc Plus to eliminate annoying ads.

  • Love that first comment was quick fix to this. Long live democratic news on the ‘net!

  • this is an uber fail. in their desperation, they are only going to hasten their own demise.

    I have been amazed at how Dinosaur Media has failed to adapt to trends seen clearly right from the start of the internet age by many (executives at Dinosaur Media not included).

    all I can do is encourage people to read Clay Shirky to see how this will play out:


  • No thanks

    “It’s like watching a grandmother who has run out of money and so, to afford the drugs she needs to save her life, is looking around the attic for any heirloom she can sell on the corner.”

    As you said, they’re the drugs she needs to save her life. What other options does the Gray Lady have?

    • James d.

      I think I know what Jeff’s saying with the analogy, but the choice of the ill grandmother can throw one off. After all, it seems to imply that the grandmother should just accept her death — or, at her advanced age and illness, create a new, money-making career for herself.
      The former is what I thought of first, and I thought, that’s rather unpleasant. But I see the larger point.

  • John Podhoretz

    Jeff, you’re calling someone who doesn’t pay a “customer,” which is exactly why this post makes no sense.

    • Podhoretz (“someone who doesn’t pay”) is simply wrong.

      People who use newspaper websites are paying attention, which is the scarcest coin of all.

  • Mike Manitoba

    I don’t understand. You balk at a newspaper charging for time and information, yet as a consultant, it’s perfectly acceptable for you to do it.

  • I don’t know why the Times would waste its time with this, especially when Rupert Murdoch has already announced that his big NY daily will be charging for content sometime in the next year or so. If the Times really wants to test this “people will pay” theory, why not wait for it to play out on the WSJ’s site? (Note: Numbers from the WSJ will be skewed slightly upward, since the Journal offers content that makes people money in return (re: stock info).)

  • You guys are nuts. Metered content will work, because for the vast majority of all online news readers, the experience won’t change at ALL.

    Also, you’re stuck in a rut of thinking that PAYING for a PRODUCT is PUNISHMENT. What? I certainly feel punished when I go to the grocery store and buy my food. Bad Jason! What with your living and wanting stuff! Here’s punishment!

    If you’re producing something that you believe is WORTH MONEY, then you should act like it’s worth money and CHARGE FOR IT. Some people will pay. Some people won’t.

    That’s OKAY. Welcome to a market based economy, where things cost money. If that thing isn’t worth money to you; fine, use it at the level of free, or don’t use it at all.

    You can’t please everyone all the time, so you might as well please some of the people some of the time, and be able to, you know, go the grocery store and punish yourself on a regular basis.

    • Jason, I’m with you on idealistic grounds, but consider what Keller himself says:

      “the site presently makes “a lot, a lot of money” from digital advertising—though he wouldn’t specify how much—and that executives at the paper believe it is “substantially more” than The Wall Street Journal currently makes on a subscription-based pay model.”

    • Those who analogize physical products and intangible ones just don’t get it.

      — Physical products such as food exist in finite quantities, and there is no substitute for them.

      — News on the Web exists in unlimited quantities, and substitution is easy. Facts cannot be copyrighted.

      — Even the self-important New York Times is far from irreplaceable. It’s prone to ghastly mistakes in anything technical, like finance. (see: http://tinyurl.com/aysf9y)

      — Buyers of the dead-tree edition don’t pay for the news, they pay for the cost of distribution, which has zero marginal cost on the Web.

      — Having to pay or log in on the Web IS punishment. It’s a barrier to the unhindered experience normal on the Web.

      Aside from those points, great reply, Jason.

      • Joe

        Since when did quality journalism exist in ‘unlimited
        quantities’? I would argue there is a greater shortage of
        that than on ‘physical products’ like food. And the only way
        to get people to keep producing it is if they can make a
        living doing in it. And the best way to do that is to charge for
        it. You pay for everything else, why wouldn’t you pay for
        quality intellectual property? Ridiculous.

  • I would like to believe that solution #2 would work. The failure of the “In Denver Times” experiment, which I honestly feel was more or less the same idea, makes me less than hopeful, though.

    I guess I like solution #2 (“membership”) because I feel like its the closest thing to an “mutual aid” solution I’ve seen to the economic crisis in journalism (what you could also call the “In Rainbows” solution– if you like us, help us out.)


    But, we’ll see.

  • Hugo

    Well, I’d pay to join a New York Times membership club. But I guess if Jeff’s right, that means… I DON’T EXIST!


    • Solitude

      Actually, if Jeff is right you do exist, just not in enough numbers to pay the overhead of the business.

  • Hugo

    Bravo, Jason Preston. It’s funny, and sad, how unusual it is to hear people speak obvious, logical truths on this issue.

  • I strongly disagree with Jason P. Metering might seem like a good idea from the point of view of a publisher, but it’s looking at it from completely the wrong perspective. It’s a mistake to make decisions looking at the crowd, and not at the needs of individual readers. Paradoxically, when building a community, the individual user’s needs and perceived utility and value are the only things that matter. You can’t look at your subscriber base and say “we have X # of subscribers…if this fraction are willing to pay for extended usage, we’ll make $X”, because there are so many free alternatives. It’s an attention economy and people are fickle. Crowds can evaporate in days. The second you turn on the meter, it creates pressure. Even if most people will never reach “too much, now you have to pay” they will still feel the clock ticking, and who wants that? Really. What will happen is that the crowd’s attention will shrink, traffic will stall and when the dust clears from the exodus the “crowd metrics” you were basing your profit-making decisions on won’t mean anything – regardless of how the pay structure works. The second people are aware that they MIGHT have to pay, they behave differently.

  • Mike Manitoba

    I have seen the future, and it is coddling.

  • kyle

    So I met with some on the NYT’s strategy/marketing team in 2005 for a grad school trek…….not sure if they had a handle on what was going on around them and now it looks a lot worse.
    Posted this link before but Vivian Schiller’s point on why they removed Times Select is very relevant to today’s news. She puts cost metrics behind the logic too:

  • Tom Doughty


    You have got to be kidding me! Turn on a doomsday clock?!?!?!?!

    You made me laff so hard i think i wet myself!

  • Tom,


    That’s right!

    Either the government does a bailout of Dinosaur Media or this guy


    He will turn on the Dinosaur Media DOOMSDAY CLOCK!!!!!!

  • Metering content won’t fly–and Keller seems to acknowledge that in his comparing revenue to the WSJ. It is sad that charging for content is a non-starter business model these days (unless, cough cough, you’re charging for a book), but it would be misplaced idealism for the NYT to think they can single-handedly change that.

    However, having a premium level of access that offers community might work. But they obviously have to think through what people would be willing to pay for. Given the gazillions of people who post comments on articles and want to engage the NYT writers, I could see the NYT charging for both. At least I think they should work through the options–it strikes me as their best near-term option to find revenue outside the ad-supported model.

    Of course, I’m idealistic enough to want the ad-supported model to be obliterated–but realistic enough to know how unlikely that is in the foreseeable future.

  • This is just another sign of the bleed-out of the newspaper industry. It’s something akin to a tourniquet being tied in the wrong place. Newspapers are losing both readers and advertisers because they’re sticking to an antiquated model of business out of a sense of tradition. I’ve actually heard publishers say that the Internet is a fad and will eventually fade.

    My advice for the industry is to look at other models, most notably Google, and see how their innovation and design thinking approach is allowing them to dominate a medium that deals in “free information.”

    A perfect example is GOOG-411. Google lets the public use its telephone information service at no charge. Meanwhile, it uses the public to help refine the voice recognition software used in the system. Then it sells the voice recognition software to other companies who use it for their own products.

    Newspapers may need to take a hard look at their assets and what they have to offer, and rethink their approach to business. It could be the only thing that saves them.

    • I just attended a gathering of publishers, and they are all concerned about their online business models. I’m curious if you can name some of the people / companies saying that “the Internet is a fad”.

      The comparison to Google doesn’t strike me as helpful. Google is ad-supported, just like the newspapers. What Google doesn’t do is produce content–rather, they are a middleman. Are you suggesting that newspapers shouldn’t produce content either, but should all become aggregators or search engines? What sort of rethinking do you have in mind?

      I’m not disputing that the newspaper industry is hemorrhaging–that’s clear for all to see. But I don’t see how anything you or the rest of the WWGD crowd are suggesting could help them.

      Is there a single example of a content producer that is doing something inspired by Google’s model? Or an example of what that might entail?

      • Start with the Guardian thinking distributed with its api, joining the NY Times, NPR, and the BBC.
        Glam started a platform and network and others, including Burda, are finally paying attention to that model.
        Journalists all over — except at the WSJ, where it’s now forbidden — are treating their work as a process more than a product, issuing reporting on the blogs – as betas – to get collaborative help.
        And so on….

  • One question I have is what will happen when you run out of time/page views … will a big black screen appear. Or will be like the pay walls of the not-too-distant past? (Which, we remember, didn’t really work.)

    It would sure make me harness my serendipitous surfing of NYT site, and that’s a shame. That happening upon feeling on the Web is one of its greatest assets.

  • Vada Dean

    Does the meter measure the right metric for the exchange of value between publishers and consumers? Does optimization of the meter benefit publisher and consumer simultaneously? Is the meter the pagerank of journalism?

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  • Pernille Tranberg

    12-year old girls will pay for virtual hay to their virtual ponies. How come that most of you insist on free journalism? Yet print is dying slowly. Yet advertizing cannot finance important journalism. Yes, if you just want bloggers, commentatort, quick news and superficial journalism – advertising might be enough. But what about the investigative reporting that really reveals for example corruption or abuse of your tax money?Sorry, you have to pay something and we need a fundamental change in web sociology.

    • Solitude

      I insist on open journalism.
      I deny the established professionals the right to be gate keepers of any sort.

      The quality of their work, and their judgment has been found wanting.
      I have zero interest in hearing of the latest Jon Benet Ramsey or O.J. Simpson case day after day ad nauseum while there are other stories I could be informed about.

      Amateurs do a far better job of covering everything, once you learn to navigate the blogosphere.

      And certainly they are not less accurate than the profession of Jason Blair, And Walter Duranty.

      • Mike Manitoba

        Do you wear a monocle and huff in an Oxford trill?

    • Andy Freeman

      > How come that most of you insist on free journalism?

      We don’t.

      We merely point out that we won’t pay more than the lowest cost provider.

      If you’re doing commodity news, you’re probably either giving it away for your own reasons or you’re competing with someone who is giving it away. Either way….

      If you’re doing not-commodity news, you can charge what the market will bear – value to your readers is the limit.

      It may be possible to make money on commodity news, but the easy money is in good, unique, valuable-to-readers.

      One way to figure out whether you’re delivering that is whether your readers offer to pay when you take the day off.

  • The trolls on this blog are really something else. “I paid a buck fifty for a hot dog with relish and onions yesterday, therefore subscription gateways are a viable business model for the delivery of news content on the internet.” That’s basically what some of you are saying.

  • SD

    why not run it like a political campaign? allow bloggers to create “tip jars”, and (unlike political campaigns) offer both financial and non-financial rewards to those bloggers who raise the most money.

    Rewards could include: a revenue share on money raised; unique insider access to the paper; special, early windows for editorial content (so those bloggers can get access to stories before jon q public).

    The 1 catch – the names of the “donation packagers” would be made public by the newspaper … so readers would always know the relationship between the newspapers and the source of revenue … probably more readily transparent than ad relationships today.

    This only works at the national level, but hey, these papers are going out of business anyway, so there wont be many papers competing anymore.

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  • Hi Jeff,
    I have a question for you. I am about 80% of the way through WWGD and something has been bothering me in what is otherwise a compelling arguement for the googilastion of everything.
    It strikes me that there is an error in your thinking (and I am happy to be corrected). You omit to consider the absence of competition in a googleised world and the implications of a world wide monopoly.
    Please accept my apologies if you cover this at the end of the book, but I have only just crystalised my view point and it’s been bugging me since I started reading it.
    Pkease could you share your thoughts with me on the implication of a google monopoly, what would happen in the event of a change of leadership at google and speculate as you have done so in the book on some less good outcomes.
    I do not have an agenda, i’m just hoping you can inform my thinking with a more balanced perspective.
    Also, if any text is mis-spelt, it may be me or may be the fact that only part of the text box is displaying on your site.
    Warm regards

    • Google has not won all wars. Social, local, and live are still up for grabs. Google does have growing hegemony in advertising but there’s nothing to stop others from competing on many fronts.

      • Thank you Jeff. I take away a powerful message from your reply that you put your money where you mouth is with this and eat your own dog food. I’m impressed at getting a bespoke reply from you.
        I can’t help feeling that you’ve not fully disected my suggestion fully though. I accept what you are saying entirely that there any many new and emerging battlegrounds to play for and previous performance is not indicative of future performance – I have a feeling that my grandkids will say ‘Microsoft who?’, but as you rightly point out google have become more than a product. More than a service. They are the platform that the web operates on. And whilst the ecomonics of abudance is a truth I ha happily accpet

  • for the future, I am sure that you woud accecpt that as a minimum the economics of scarcity and the economics of abundance are both attributes are of our current reality. A recognised trait of the economics of scarcity is thhat it is amoral and such capable of produding both deisirbale and undesirbale results.
    TTThere is a risk of google abusing there power at some point and the masses (whether individual agents or businesses) having little choice but to move with grain of change as google defines the parameters for those still operating in the economins of scarcity.
    We all chose the words we use to create the reality around us and I think it is food for thought that google’s governing mantra is don’t be evil. The action word in this is evil. It is an interesting choice of language (whether considered at conscious level or not)
    In summary, I believe that are risks associated with googles direction and as a mimimum there current dominance creates the potential for harm as well good and it this that i would you like you to dwell on.
    Warm regards

  • Rob Poitras

    Im guessing it will also require a login to monitor time on a site. That is stupid as well.

    • Lisa

      the NYT already has a login. If you read it often, you won’t notice it because it is stored in your cookies. You will notice it if you clear your cache or move to another computer.

      Did any of you happen to read all the NYT user comments to their last column on paying for content? Many commenters–and hundreds and hundreds of readers who read–said they’d be willing to pay a monthly or annual subscription for the access they have to NYT content. If you have premium or unique content, then why not? Works well for hyper-local, where there are few competitors. Works for WSJ. Why not NYT?

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  • James H

    I browse newspaper sites (for free) to my heart’s content, so metered reading doesn’t appeal to me. But what makes sense to me is charging for some sort of premium content. What premium content? Darned if I know. I’d think it’d be something along the lines of interactive infographics, expanded topical coverage, or deep searches of a newspaper’s archives. Or even a charging system in which I get basic access (say, the first 10-15 paragraphs) for free, but I pony up for a subscription (or a one-time fee) for access to the rest of the article if it interests me.

    Or even … and I’m not sure antitrust laws allow this — let me go to one site that allows me to pay a discounted rate to subscribe to multiple Web sites. Say … $15-$20 a month, and I can subscribe to up to 20-30 news outlets of my choice. A sort of clearinghouse for online publishers, if you will.

  • It’s ironic that you champion Tom Evslin at just the time when the Internet access companies are desperate to move away from “all you can eat”, because that model isn’t sustainably profitable in the long run.

  • Uncle Bernie

    who reads those far left scum anyway?

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  • There’s room for a constructive solution – even if it’s a bit elusive. When the NYT rolled out their TimesSelect (I think it was called) I signed up and paid right away. They’ve discontinued it, I assume because it wasn’t hugely successful… but it’s not unreasonable to think it could have picked up speed eventually.

    There is a reality that many ignore: I WANT to pay for my NY Times content. I don’t want to be a free rider. Give me a badge I can post on social networks that says “Dood actually pays for his NYT” or something to that effect… WAIT… ignore that… There’s a creative solution to this problem of people like me wanting to pay for what they perceive as amazingly valuable content.

    Bring back TimesSelect and let journalists that are active on social media sites “encourage” their followers to pay. Offer a flat rate, please… I don’t want to have to make the purchase decision over and over and over again.

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