NYT pay wall: Stop seeking the future in the past

A lot of folks with more business acumen than I have are weighing in on the new payment structure for digital content that the New York Times revealed last week.

I suspect David Cohn of Spot.Us is right – it will neither be a huge success or a monumental failure. Lukewarm sounds about right to me.

And Lord knows that I was sorely tempted to weigh in on NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller’s strange essay on the evils of aggregation that appeared in the Times Sunday magazine a week ago. As someone whose work as a reporter at small papers was often “aggregated’’ without credit by the big boys, I thought I might be able to bring that historical perspective to the debate. But then I decided that since I would fall somewhere around 113,487,912th on the list of the country’s most influential people, I should probably just leave that one alone.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about these two communiqués from inside the Times during the last 10 days – first Keller on aggregation, then announcing the pay wall – and what they tell us about this most influential newspaper’s view of the digital world.

I think it tells us that these guys have a vision very much preoccupied with the rearview mirror. As is true for most of legacy media.

But then we already knew that, didn’t we? Fifteen years into the Internet age and entering the fifth year of the Newspaper Recession, and legacy media still wants to manage its future based on its past.

It makes me think about a meeting I was in during one of the early rounds of what would become a landslide of layoffs. It was Monday, and I’d been told that I needed to find $1.8 million in newsroom cuts. By Wednesday.

I was deep into what would become an 18-month migraine over this when one of the folks from the business side brightly offered that he believed this was just a temporary situation, driven by the downturn in Florida real estate and not some secular change in the way people use media. “It’ll be back by Christmas,’’ he said.

That was 2007. I’m still waiting for Santa to arrive. That sure seems to be the strategy my friends in print and local television have settled on – let’s all hold on until we hear the jingle of sleigh bells.

The part of all this that saddens and angers me is this posture of “Wishing Will Make It So.’’ Both Keller’s piece in the Times and the Times own digital strategy are built around the idea that information needs to just move the way we want it to, damn it. They are built around the idea of control.

They don’t reflect the real world of digital information at all. They reflect strategies built around protecting print and all it stands for – control of information, charging what we want for the access we deign to grant, and the idea that editorial judgment is the value-add of journalism. When in truth, the value-add comes a lot closer to what Jim Brady said he was hoping to bring to Washington through TBD.com – smart aggregation, harnessing the power of geo-coding, and building deep engagement around both powerful original content and the dialogue the community itself is building.

What Brady was talking about was journalism built for the tools and the way people use them – journalism that, as Jim said, was of the Web and not just on it.

Legacy media still wants to just be on the Web – and they want the Web to behave in the ways we valued and understood back in the days when we were printing it all on paper once a night. The Web doesn’t work that way. More importantly, people don’t work that way.

I love the NYT and I consume it voraciously on my phone and on my laptop. It is not that I am opposed to paying the Times for its content. In fact, if the Times had asked me for money to support their strong coverage in the Middle East, or because I learned about how nuclear containment structures are supposed to work from its Japan coverage or because Gail Collins makes me weep with laughter, the check would already be in the mail.

But I won’t support a plan that is built around exerting control over how and where I consume that information. I won’t support a plan that’s pricing structure is so completely whacked in comparison to how the Internet economy works. I won’t support a plan governing use on different devices that, as my friend Todd Coplivetz wrote, makes as much sense as charging for what room I’m in when I read a NYT story.

The real tragedy here, as Steve Buttry points out, is that the country’s journalism leader could so easily be the leader on the business model side as well. Consider if a true digital innovator had at her disposal the money the Times poured into researching and developing their pay wall. As Steve asks: What if they’d spent that money on real innovation, instead of another spin at a tired model?

As for me, I’m done supporting tired models. I won’t support any more the delusional thinking that we can build a future on what worked in the past. I’ve wasted too many years – and endured too many migraines – trying to make that math work.


  1. Excellent post, Janet (not just because you dropped my name)! I praised it and elaborated in my blog: http://bit.ly/hWUo4u

    I note that the Times reportedly blew about 8 to 10 years’ worth of Knight News Challenge funding on the R&D for the paywall. What could that have accomplished in forward-looking projects?


  1. […] were more objections voiced, too: Both Mathew Ingram of GigaOM and former newspaper journalist Janet Coats both called it backward-looking, with Ingram saying it “seems fundamentally reactionary, and […]

  2. […] tried to make similar points before and cheered on Janet Coats when she made point #2 last year, criticizing the New York Times paywall as a rear-view mirror […]