Apocalypse 40: Fees and Disclosures

By , 13 November, 2010, 1 Comment

Two very different publications with very similar names–the Times of London and the New York Times–have been leading the charge within establishment media to try and take more revenue out of subscribers than out of advertisers.

The Times of London’s paywall, which blocks non-subscribers from reading anything except headlines–came down in July, and this month, News Corp announced that it 105,000 people have paid to access the site since then. Here’s the problem: we have no idea what kind of access they paid for. How many paid for desktop access vs. applications on the Kindle or the iPad? How many paid for a promotional subscription at a lower rate during the first few weeks? How many paid for single articles vs. for the whole site? Without answers to those questions, it’s impossible to know if the paywall is worth the dramatic crash in traffic that the Times has suffered. PaidContent did their best to sound cheerful in the rough calculations they published, but even they admit, the numbers look “a little meagre.” The FT, MediaGuardian and Clay Shirky were much less charitable.

It’s a pity because the Times’ redesigned site is a pretty sleek affair. But it’s a shame for another reason too: the Times paywall was not just an experiment for the Times but an experiment for the industry. And even those of us who agree with the Murdochs about next-to-nothing were curious about how it would work. Because we can’t get ahold of the details, the paywall can’t serve as a teaching moment. We know it probably didn’t work, but we don’t know exactly why, or where the failings were. Shame on James Murdoch for that.

Meanwhile, here in New York, the New York Times metered system is about to launch. I’m already a full print-and-web subscriber, so it won’t affect me, but one thing that is nice is to know that the meter–unlike Murdoch’s paywall–doesn’t shut out search, or traffic from blogs and other websites, which means I can keep linking to the Grey Lady from here. In that, it’s going to be a bit like the FT’s model (which I like). There’s more info on the meter and other things the NYT is thinking about in the most recent earnings call. [Worth noting: yes, profits are down for this quarter, but year to date, 2010 is looking to be a more profitable year than 2009.]

But here’s the interesting thing: despite all the hype surrounding it, the Times management seems to have already conceded that the meter is too soft an approach to radically change its digital revenue stream. CEO Janet Robinson told Robb Montgomery that she think the real paid content winner is apps. Assistant Managing Editor Gerry Marzorati told a conference in New York that the Times can stay afloat for awhile by hiking up rates on its print subscribers, and scandalized many-a-blogger by noting that many subscribers don’t know what they pay. I’m not sure, exactly, how the meter helps either of those strategies along, or why so much time an effort went into it if the head honchos don’t expect it to make a splash. Thoughts?

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