Monday, March 8, 2010

The Loss of the Times?

Last Friday I attended a lecture by Dickinson’s Spring 2010 Cogan Alumni Fellow, Frank James ’79. The main focus of James’ talk was his “journey from old to new media” – how he adapted to the changing world of journalism and the ever-growing use of the internet. James touched on the difficult position and decreasing profits of traditional print media companies; he also mentioned the New York Times’ plan to start charging for online news in early 2011. While this was not the main topic of his lecture, it is one that I became curious about.

The New York Times’ plan is a “metered model” – they intend to allow online readers free access to a certain quantity of article before they begin charging for access. This plan comes after a previous attempt at charging for content called TimesSelect; under TimesSelect, specified content was available only if readers paid to access it. According to Chris Lefkow’s article, New York Times executives discuss plan to charge online readers, the Times claims that their research shows “that a sufficient number of users are open to the idea [of paying for content] to make this a viable model.”

How could it possibly be a viable model? If all newspaper-owned online news sources were to follow suit immediately, I would agree that it could be a good idea. However, because the majority of papers are going to wait and see what happens with the Times, there will be plenty of free news sources on the web. What rational consumer would choose to pay to read the New York Times when they could simply read the Washington Post or another big name online newspaper for no charge at all? Unless the consumer has a very strong preference for the New York Times, they will find their news at other websites.

While I think that if all newspapers were to start charging it could be a good idea, I do not necessarily think it would be a good idea. There are many news sources on the web that are not owned by major newspaper companies that would remain free. In fact, the rise of the internet has resulted in a rise of written news sources from non-newspaper companies. For example, the BBC, CNN and ABC all have written news on their websites in addition to videos they post. The Cogan Alumni Fellow, Frank James, works for NPR writing a blog; NPR was formerly just a radio station, but now, to some extent, has written news on their website. Again I must ask, what rational consumer would choose to pay for the New York Times (or another major newspaper’s website) when they could get news from another site for free?

Perhaps it could be said that consumers are concerned about the quality and reliability of their news. This would imply that only the Times (or perhaps newspaper-run websites more generally) has quality news. If quality means writing, it is possible that this is true. If quality means something else, however, perhaps amount of details about an occurrence, I disagree. When it comes to reliability, if there is anyone who thinks the Times is more reliable than reading multiple sources (all of which could be free), that person is wrong. Restricting yourself to one newspaper exposes you to bias in one direction that you may not notice simply because you never get another perspective.

I cannot be sure of the outcome of the Times’ plan; perhaps I have misjudged and people are far less rational than I believe them to be (this would be a sad state of affairs, since I hardly judge humans to be particularly rational). I suppose in the next year the truth will be revealed: can online newspapers charge for their news without suffering a large loss in readership? Whatever the outcome, it will hardly affect people like me who graze for their news from multiple sources. I think I will stick with GoogleNews and the BBC; I am not too concerned about the loss of the Times as a source.

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