The New York Times, like most news outlets currently in—which is to say, currently fighting for—existence, is spending much of its time these days alternately analyzing, fearing, and being inspired by a single term: “paid content.” Over the weekend, we learned of one hypothetical paid-content strategy currently under Times Company consideration: graded “memberships” to the Times, in the general model of museum patronage plans. A TimesSilver package, available at $50 a year, would include “FirstLook” access to stories, access to (the currently free) TimesWire and (the currently mostly-free) TimesMachine archive, and other perks. A Gold membership, for $150 a year, would include all that plus access to TimesEvents (paper-sponsored conferences, etc.) and TimesInsider (personal access to some writers, tours of the Times building, etc.).
Though the packages described are currently only theoretical—“it’s very early in the process,” NYT spokeswoman Diane McNulty noted—their consideration also sheds light on the general direction of the paid-content strategizing in which the Times is currently engaged.
But: is that direction the right one? The news-business analyst Martin Langeveld, writing over at Nieman Lab yesterday, argued that the Times’s speculative strategy has the paid-content calculus precisely backwards: that readers will be much more willing to pay for niche information—on travel, gardening, film, finance, and the like—than for “elite” memberships based on a more generalized approach to access. “Few people are willing to pay for broad news content, no matter who they get to rub shoulders with,” Langeveld writes, “but many people are willing to pay for content relevant to their passions.”
CJR’s Michael Shapiro, writing in the current issue of the magazine, took a stance similar to Langeveld’s: “People will pay for news they deem essential,” Shapiro had it, “and depending on the depth and urgency of their need, they will pay a lot. Their subscriptions, in turn, might well help to underwrite the cost of producing original work that might remain free and be of interest to more than a select few.”
What do you think? Are people generally happier—and, more to the point, likelier—to pay for information that feeds their passions, rather than for experiences that do? Must it be an either/or proposition, or is there a way for news organizations to leverage both goods? And, to revisit an old question: What, when it comes to online news, would you pay for?The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.