Despite being a huge fan of the New York Times, I’m reluctant to subscribe when the paper institutes its paywall. There are a couple of reasons for that, but in this post I’ll focus on just one: I’d rather be asked to support good journalism than forced to pay for it.
Being asked to support a worthy cause triggers an assessment of that cause’s importance to society, whereas being asked to pay triggers a selfish cost-benefit analysis.
Is the good or service in question worth the money? Could I find it cheaper elsewhere?
The NYT has lots of terrific content but in an information economy characterized by abundance it has to compete against lots and lots of quality, free content. I’m constantly overwhelmed by intelligent, valuable content that I’d like to read/watch/listen to.
If managing my information intake is a matter of weighing quality content against quality content, looking for any slight preference for one feed over another, why would I select the one that requires an annual subscription?
Moreover, while reporting may still be expensive, quoting is cheap. Even if every major news source put up a paywall, bloggers could still quote a couple key grafs on their way to offering analysis.*
In short, I believe that the marginal benefit offered by outlets like the NYT will not meet my own criteria for being “worth paying for.”
I’d much rather be asked to give to an organization whose work I want to support.
Some might see this as hopelessly idealistic. How many people would really donate? Perhaps it is, but so is the alternative. I just don’t see many sophisticated readers weighing the cost of subscription against the wealth of free content online and deciding to subscribe.
One final note: the membership model at one point under consideration by the NYT strikes me as closer to what I’d like to see. Ask loyal readers to become dues-paying members, for which they get access to extra content in exchange for offsetting the cost of keeping most of the website freely available.
*At this point I think it’s fairly non-controversial to suggest that America’s copyright regime is overly restrictive and that further restricting it, so as to prevent the sort of quoting I refer to, would be incredibly damaging.