Spoiling the paid party (again)

Paid Content reports today that The New York Times Companies’ Martin Nisenholtz is talking about charging for the paper’s mobile app.

On the face of it, this seems to make sense: People are paying for mobile content and functionality (ring tones vs. earth-shattering news, ferchrissakes!) and for mobile apps. The New York Times iPhone app is downright wonderful. It’s far better than The Times’ Kindle app (no fault of The Times; all the Kindle news sites are sucky). I’d pay for the app – once.

But would I pay for an ongoing subscription to it? Well, here’s the problem: my iPhone brings me the web and I can read The Times there without paying. Damn, that genie; doesn’t know his place (in the bottle).

Nisenholtz says, quite rightly, that one problem with the iPhone app is that there are fewer opportunities for advertising. And even so, the few ad avails I see are all filled with free house ads for The Times itself; obviously, the sales staff hasn’t taken seriously the opportunity to sell this prime audience (why is it always thus?). So The Times’ app makes bupkis. Even the house ads are irritating, so I might pay for an app without ads. But then I’d be paying for less irritation rather than for the content.

What’s the solution? I haven’t the faintest idea.

  • Funny enough I abandoned my paid Kindle Times sub *and* Times iPhone app for the speedier and just as awesome NY Times Mobile site at: http://mobile.nytimes.com on the iPhone. Recommended.

  • isaac david

    Glad to hear the agenda setting newspaper is at it again.. Maybe they can create a mobile app that can find uranium in Niger..No i’m not bitter

  • The content of news has value add, but the structure of delivery ends up being pretty much a commodity – at least to the degree I can foresee.

    In that view, NYT app is basically a form of single content source reader for commodity content structure. Would you pay more for a version of Acrobat that only read PDFs from one source when an all source version is free, or even if it costs a little more?

    So ultimately its not a winning strategy to have a content provider specific application because it interferes with the growing need we all have to connect up data across sources. For simple examples – many of these helpful reader type applications (and news sites) make it difficult to get the URL of what you are currently looking at. Some block copying parts of text (Theft you say? Am I violating copyright if I want to look up a name on wikipedia???). They have their own voting and bookmarking and even social network-ish stuff built in. That’s not better, that’s broken. Can they be fixed, perhaps with continuous aggressive trend watching and investment in development, and new management. Can they ever be better? Only if the news content is somehow structurally unique – and I don’t think it will be.

    So I’ll happily pay the news outlets (someday, somehow :) for news – but frankly as little as I can until they stop requiring me to consume it inconveniently and making it worse. Like music, software, books, news from news sites is ultimately better when ripped out and properly connected up. Information may or may not want to be free, but I want control of the information I’m using.

  • Jeff:

    You could use that entire argument about iPhone apps in general — eventually, the web will win, and there won’t be some separate, device specific environment.

    In the meantime, they should try it. Specifically, I think they should try out a monthly subscription (maybe $9.95, maybe $19.95) and, separately, a $.99 day pass. I don’t read the nytimes every day on my iphone, but when I am waiting for something, I would happily pay $.99 for access, and maybe do that more than a 10X a month…

    No harm in trying it. Implementation is the only truth.


  • About the sales reps. Wonder if their commission/bonuses are still tied to paper sales and less so to digital sales. When I published treeware, that’s how it was.

    Surely, it’s different now…

  • Get the paid content model out of your head NY Times. Use the iPhone app to drive traffic to your mobile site (show summaries of the article, if you want the whole thing, click here to go to the mobile site).

    Since the mobile site (and the iPhone app) are great, they would play nice together.

    The only other option I can think of (to your point) is to charge for the app (not a subscription). Allow users to customize their feeds by subject area, journalist, etc. Instead of getting all the news, get all YOUR news.

  • Rick

    Honestly, I wouldn’t mind paying a buck for the iPhone app–IF it were a decent application. I use iPhone apps from Reuters, HuffPo, AP and the New York Times; NYT is the worst of the bunch by a wide margin. It is slow to load, very buggy and–unlike the HuffPo app–does not take advantage of the standard user interface elements that most iPhone apps use. So in my humble opinion they’d better build a decent product before they presume to charge for it.

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  • Clearly, the NYTimes needs to charge online – they stupidly abandoned their paid model years ago despite it’s short-term success.

    In their own paper’s announcement in Sept ’07 giving up prematurely they said:

    “The Times said the project had met expectations, drawing 227,000 paying subscribers — out of 787,000 over all — and generating about $10 million a year in revenue.”

    And they did this in just two years! Think how much better off they’d be today and how many more online subscribers they’d have had if they didn’t throw in the towel so quickly.

    • Clearly, they decided they would make more money through getting more audience and more advertising. And evidence would say they did, as taking down the wall increased traffic a reported 40 percent. In the words of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, TimesSelect’s revenue wouldn’t pay the gas bill in their building.

  • Jeff – that hasn’t happened – not even close. The incremental increase in web traffic has not produced $10 mm or more in new ad revenue. And, look at the result…take a look at their long-term stock price chart and the fact the business is on the verge of bankruptcy.

    • Rick

      Eric, I respectfully disagree. It’s a bit myopic to believe that dropped their paywall drove NYT to bankruptcy. Yes, it is arguable as to whether they have “made up” to $10 million in revenue they sacrificed, but revenue is not profit. It’s quite possible that the costs associated with the paywall made their profits marginal at best. It’s also possible that the associated loss in readership outweighed the income generated by the paywall. It’s also possible that they simply don’t know what they’re doing.

      There are countless reasons why NYT is teetering on the edge, not the least of which are the lack of effective audience segmentation (it’s almost dishonest to call NYT a “New York” newspaper); the dis-economies of scale associated with overgrown subscription bases; the monopolistic, non-competitive behavior exhibited by NYT and most traditional newspaper chains; and the damage done to NYT’s credibility by dolts like Judith Miller. And, as Jeff and Clay Shirky and many other people point out again and again, no one can “own” news events, and no one wants to pay for common knowledge when they can find it free somewhere else.

      NYT is suffering online, IMHO, b/c they are well behind the technology curve. They come off like old uncle Earl trying to dress like a teenager so he can fit in with the hipster crowd and score some grass. It’s easy to throw stones at Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, but take CNET for instance–a company that won awards for journalistic excellence at a time when no one took online news seriously. They effectively positioned themselves as the go-to destination for a specific niche–technology news, in no small part because they consistently scooped important tech stories. But at its heart, CNET is a technology company. They’ve developed (and spun off) IT solutions such as Vignette Storyserver, and the company runs on an advanced and well-integrated content management platform with a lot of other innovative, homegrown technology. Yes, CNET has had it’s ups and downs but their story ended nicely with the CBS acquisition. CNN and their iReporter brand are another good example of how media companies can benefit from being on the leading edge of innovation.

      Meanwhile, NYT is considering whether to charge us for their sub-par iPhone app? No thank you.

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  • Want to make money with an iPhone app? Innovate! Get it to do things that no other app does (including the website), and then prime that new functionality with NYTimes content (either local or linked back to the site for advertising eyeballs).

    Just some ideas off the top of my head: sort the news based on the phone’s current location. Weather forecasts for whatever town you happen to be standing in? Local restaurants, movie theaters, other services (complete with NYTimes reviews of same) at your fingertips? Breaking news stories related to location (e.g., get off the plane in Boston and read about what’s been happening in Boston lately)? Or how about interacting with other iPhone users – either strangers of people in your contacts list. Anyone want a NYTimes that’s sorted by the 1-5 star ratings, as given by your friends & colleagues in the past few hours?

    Put some smart minds on ideas like that & see if you can’t generate something that’s worth a few bucks per month…