The cockeyed economics of metering reading

The irony of the report that The New York Times is going to start metering readers and charging those who come back more often is this: They would would end up charging — and, they should fear, sending away — the readers who are worth the most while serving free those who are worth least.

That’s according to the math of News Corp., which argues that readers who come via links from search and aggregators and bloggers and such are worthless because they’re not local and they don’t stay; they’re one-click-wonders. The readers who come back again and again, the ones you know more about and can rely on and target better and build relationships with, goes this logic, are worth more. And News Corp. is also threatening to charge them.

So why charge your best customers? Why single them out? Why risk driving them away?

The logic eludes me. So do the economics.

I know, the argument is that these readers use the content more so they should be charged more. But that is based on the assumption that content is a consumable, a scarcity that drains the more it is read. Of course, it isn’t. Content is, instead, a magnet that can create relationships of value; whether that happens is up to the creator of the content and the quality of service and relevance is gives. That, dare I repeat it, is the basis of the link economy.

But note the verb that started off the paragraph above: should. Readers who read more should pay more. This is the product of journalism’s sense of entitlement.

So why would The Times charge? There are a few possible reasons:

* It has failed at advertising, as I said of News Corp. recently.

* Its costs are too high — and rather than cutting them into a rational business, it desperately seeks some other revenue.

* It is falling prey to PR, to the pressure of outsiders who keep nattering on about charging.

* It has forgotten its own lessons with TimesSelect sees amnesia as a strategy.

I think the risks are great and grave. The Times could have fought to become the preeminent news brand on earth, fighting it out with the BBC for that title. Instead, I fear, it will duck into its shell as the Washington Post has.

I already pay for The Times at home. I hope they would not charge me again. If they do, I will cancel the paper. If they charge me for using the paper more, I will use it less.** I will find other very good substitutes for much of what I get from it — indeed, this will push me to discover and curate new sources. I will read what matters most to me from The Times and discover just how much that is — a calculation the paper should not want to force me to make, not when there is so much new and good competition out there.

Clay Shirky has ridiculed micropayments, saying that we don’t like being nickel-and-dimed. I’ll ridicule metering, reminding those who contemplate it to remember what we think of meter maids. We curse them.

There is only one thing that can happen should The TImes put a meter on us. It will shrink.

** I should expand on this point. I would not use The Times less because I like it less, because I want to punish it. I love The Times. I read it every day. What I’m saying is that by metering, The Times will have me make a new economic decision every time I want to read a story: Is this unique content I will get only here (there is a good deal of that) or is this commodity information I can get elsewhere (BBC, Reuters, Washington Post, Politico, TechCrunch…). The Times then restricts our relationship and it is in that relationship that it has to find value.