Let me say from the outset: the irony of this blog post is not lost on me. The fact that the discussion on whether to charge for online news content is occurring online on blogs and reputable newspapers that are accessed for free— the whole situation’s a little meta, but worth discussing nonetheless.
I recently debated with my father over whether people will pay for their news online. In our age of unlimited free information on the Internet, where nearly any news and information can be accessed free of charge, are people willing to pay for news subscriptions online?
The question has been around for years, but the issue is resurfacing as the New York Times, the veritable and respected news source of millions, faces declining revenues and an ever-dipping stock price. For the past few years the New York Times has offered all of its print content online, and all of that content for free. But in such a financial rut, CEOs and journalists are asking whether this business strategy makes any sense. By giving their product away for free, the Times relies on online advertisers to constitute their revenue. But online advertising only goes so far, and with the recent credit crunch, advertisers have pulled away (from the Times and every other media outlet…) And while the New York Times has one of the largest audiences on the Internet, advertising in the online format simply cannot keep this sinking ship afloat much longer.
Experts say that the New York Times is the model paper for online subscriptions, the one news source with the brand quality and broad reach to substantiate, in the reader’s mind, a subscription fee. The Wall Street Journal charges for subscription to certain online content and has succeeded in maintaining 1.1 million online subscribers for revenues of $60 million. But since 2007, readers have been getting their Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman for free… will they start paying now? Is the New York Times of such better quality that people will pony up, or will they go elsewhere on the web?
Business strategies aside, I believe we live in a culture that no longer expects to have to pay for quality. So much quality information and products— from scholarly articles to newspaper content, from dictionaries to translating services— are available for free that the natural link between quality and price has vanished. People already illegally download their music rather than pay on iTunes; all the more so when it is perfectly legal, consumers will defer to free media outlets rather than open their wallets.
This may be sad, but I firmly believe it to be true. The question of online subscriptions is certainly still up for debate, though, and the outcome is crucial. The fate of the Gray Lady may depend upon it.