Today at 2 p.m., the New York Times will institute a paywall for access to its website, a move with a lot of promise. Journalists have long cursed their decision to give away Web content for free. After years of declining revenues and emptying newsrooms, The Times’ move felt like a kid finally demanding his lunch money back from the playground bully.
Beyond my satisfaction that journalistic justice would be served, I also liked the specifics of the plan. By allowing all visitors to read 20 articles a month before asking them to subscribe, and by giving free access to articles linked by a social network, The Times will avoid turning away new visitors and occasional readers. Instead, they ask for money only from those who, through repeated visits to the site, have demonstrated their appreciation for the product and a willingness to contribute toward its future. A few other news outlets have experimented with paywalls, and the rest of the industry is watching the juggernaut’s move with bated breath. As an aspiring journalist who has yet to convince anyone in the cash-strapped industry that he is worth hiring next year, I am rooting for it, too. And when I saw The Times was offering unlimited access for only $15 a month, I thought, why, that’s only … !
Wait … That’s nearly $200 a year. And as I learned reading the “budget” chapter of that horrible blue pamphlet called “Life After Yale” handed to me by my dean this January, I probably won’t have $200 next year to spend on something as frivolous as news. This is especially true given that I face either unemployment or a low-paying entry-level job in journalism. When weighing whether I would actually pay for the site that has been my homepage for four years now, all I could think was, “Hello, Yahoo News.”
Many other Times enthusiasts have expressed unwillingness to go along with the plan. In recent weeks, the story has now shifted to the numerous ways people are finding to exploit the loopholes in the system. Twitter feeds like @freenyt provide links to every story posted to NYTimes.com so that readers can use the social media loophole to access them, and websites have popped up that repost many of the articles. The News even ran a story saying the library would continue to provide a heretofore little-used and confusing-sounding “online image edition.” That anyone goes to such lengths proves both our need for Times content and our entrenched expectation that we should not have to pay for it.
Of course, many of the loopholes will eventually close. And still, asking around among many of my fellow graduating seniors (taking care to avoid the journalism-bound ones), I found many who read The Times regularly, and almost none who plan on paying $200 for it next year. One friend complained that the options for world news and high-caliber analysis were dwindling. If she doesn’t pay, she figures she’ll have to accept a certain hit in quality. But when I asked whether this makes her more inclined to subscribe, she laughed. “No, I’ll just deal with it.”
This sentiment is typical among my senior friends, and it is hugely troubling for The Times and journalism at large. As young, intellectually curious citizens, we Yale seniors are the main demographic that traditional news outlets need to recapture in the coming decades. And yet, it seems that this new plan to ensure journalism’s future is doing just the opposite: driving away even those small numbers of us who still support traditional news outlets, those of us who keep NYTimes.com as our browser’s homepage. Instead, we too will head toward the blogs and news aggregators that summarize the quality work of The Times but produce no original content of their own. The Times plan may raise revenue in the short term, but if they don’t invest in their future readers, decades from now they may find themselves back in a budget crunch.
I’m not sure how to fix this. The current system of free-for-all giveaway is certainly not sustainable, and I still applaud The Times for trying to change it. But neither, I fear, is The Times’ current plan all that sustainable. Thinking optimistically, maybe the loopholes will prove so annoying that enough Times enthusiasts with salaries higher than mine will subscribe and give the company the revenue to keep up operations. Maybe enough of the high-quality news outlets will institute pay walls such that we will have few free alternatives. Maybe my friends and I will grow to miss The Times, and as our salaries begin to rise, we’ll dig deep for $200. The New York Times better hope we do. Americans who crave dependable, well-financed news online better hope we do. And most of all, aspiring journalists like me better hope so.
If not, I’m going to have to take the LSAT.