Monday, March 28, 2011

The NYT paywall: a digital train wreck in slow motion

I believe in supporting quality independent journalism, so it's painful to watch the digital train wreck that is the New York Times paywall. They've apparently spent $40 million on it, and not only is it badly broken, but has a fundamental design flaw that makes it trivial to work around.

But that's not the worst problem.

The worst problem is their pricing. It's deceptive, and deeply hidden in their subscription page, which proudly touts 99 cent teaser rates, but hides the actual underlying rates under a tangle of links and redirects. Here are the actual weekly rates for an electronic subscription:

Web + smartphone: $3.75
Web + tablet: $5.00
Web + tablet + smartphone: $8.75

And here are the rates for home delivery, which come with "free all-digital access" (i.e. the third option above):

7-days a week: $7.40
Friday-Sunday: $5.20
Sunday only: $3.75
Monday-friday: $3.75

How is this pricing model broken? Let me count the ways.

1. There is no web-only option. If I have neither a smartphone nor a tablet I have to pay for one of those services regardless.

2. The cost of Web+tablet+smartphone is the sum of web+smartphone and web+tablet. So if I want all three, I have to pay for web access twice. Unless...

3. The cheapest way to get all three is to subscribe to the Sunday times. The NYT in effect will pay me $5.00 a week to take a paper copy of the Sunday times and throw it in the recycling bin.

A more perverse set of incentives is hard to imagine. Like I said, I believe in supporting quality independent journalism. I would happily pay to read the NYT on line if I felt that the price I was being charged is fair. But I just want to read the Times on the web, not my phone, and I don't own a tablet. I don't want to pay $250 a year for the privilege of not having to throw out a three-inch-thick stack of newsprint every week.

And I'm also pretty leery of supporting an organization that can't figure out how to build a freakin' paywall for less than forty million dollars.

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