The New York Times metered pay wall is an NPR pledge drive with a bouncer

The New York Times officially announced today that it will begin charging for some of its content beginning in 2011. The Times decided to go with a “metered” system: a certain number of articles will be free to casual browsers, but to go beyond that limited number of monthly articles, readers will pay a flat fee per month (home subscribers, such as myself, will have no limit). People who find the articles through search engine links will still be able to click through.

I don’t know yet whether this is a good move or a bad one (the only sensible position to take on January 20, 2010), but it strikes me as far less abhorrent than it could have been. (My favorite analysis so far is Felix Salmon’s economic explanation on Reuters). Pay-per-article would have kept me out of the site (if I were a non-subscriber), and would have killed the Times’s influence on the web (who would link to them?). But the free-to-browsers, paid-for-subscribers model might work. And it strikes me as very similar to a public broadcasting pledge drive, except with a mob enforcer ready to break your kneecaps for not ponying up.

NPR logoSo imagine your local public radio station. There are probably a few people who just tune in for Car Talk, once a week, while driving to Home Depot. Your station is probably generally happy to have those people, but not necessarily so interested in courting their loyalty. But then there are those people who wake up to Morning Edition, listen to Fresh Air at work, drive home to All Things Considered, and aspire to nothing more than to have the sound of Carl Kasell’s voice on their telephone answering devices. These people are the people who NPR needs, because they exhibit loyalty, and because they are the ones most likely to contribute to their member stations come pledge drive time.

The Times is banking on that same kind of loyalty, but they are planning not to lure you into donating with a DVD box set of Ken Burns movies (more PBS than NPR, I know) or with the mythologized tote bag as a positive reinforcement; they’re planning instead to force you to “donate” by just flat-out charging.

My first reaction to the idea of letting the casual surfers in for free but (in my initial view) penalizing the loyal readers was that this was bass ackwards. But then I thought of this public broadcasting analogy, and it started to make sense to me. Build the loyalty. Then ask for the money.

Of course, that’s also how drug dealers do it. First article’s free… C’mon, try it!


  1. The NPR analogy works fairly well, and it really makes sense. I am definitely a less-frequent reader of the NYTimes than you are. From my perspective, if my readership became more frequent, then I would only EXPECT to start paying for it.

    You might get the neighbor’s kid to mow your lawn for free a few times a year, but if you want it every week… pony up.

    I think the most important point about NYTimes and the web is linking. The web references, reuses and refers. If you build a giant wall around your content (especially finely-crafted, respected content), you’ve essentially isolated yourself from the rest of the net, and that defeats the purpose of being there. I think the NYTimes has found a way to allow that to still happen while not giving it all away.

    On a less serious note: tote bags are highly utilitarian, but I’ll let you in on the real deal: my PBS station’s so-named “cuddle blanket”. It’s got a pocket on the bottom to keep your feet warm, the station’s call letters on it, a pocket for a remote/phone/food/etc. and it is cut extra-long (because not all PBS/NPR users are under 5’8″).

  2. So it’s like a PBS Snuggie? (Who also happens to be my favorite character on Jersey Shore.)

  3. My dad is that guy who listens to Car Talk once a week when driving to Home Depot. Literally. It’s like you know him, lol. I think this is a really good way of looking at the NYTimes decision, though… makes sense when you look at it from that perspective.

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