2011 is the year The New York Times will finally erect its much discussed paywall. The Times will charge “less than $20 a month” for full access to its site; non-paying users will have access to an unspecified number of articles outside the paywall.
As a heavy reader of the Times – exclusively online – I am not looking forward to this. I don’t plan, as of now, to purchase an online subscription, for reasons I’ve laid out before:
1) As much as I like the Times, I don’t need it. And I’d rather be asked to support good journalism than forced to pay for it.
2) If I am going to pay money to support good journalism, I want to know that my money is going directly to that cause.
Which brings me to an idea:
The Times should offer free online subscriptions to anyone who donates a certain amount to ProPublica.
I’d get to keep reading the Times while directly supporting quality investigative journalism. Not only is ProPublica exclusively focused on investigative journalism with “moral force”, it’s also a nonprofit so it fits well with my preference for charitable support over payment.
You might wonder why the Times would consider giving away subscriptions in exchange for donating to another organization. It might seem odd, but I can think of a few reasons why they might consider it:
1) To retain power users they might otherwise lose with the paywall. I’m not going to pay for the Times, for reasons I’ve laid out. Either they lose me as a heavy reader or they find some way to let me keep reading without paying them. Of course, the Times could care less about me, but I’d hazard a guess that the kind of user who is firmly anti-paywall and pro-ProPublica tends to be more engaged and influential than the median user. This demo isn’t very big, but I’d imagine it’s still valuable. It’s full of web-savvy power users who consistently share content through their networks. There is value in keeping these users, especially in light of (2).
2) It doesn’t cost the Times anything. Offering a few hundred free subscriptions costs the Times nothing, if you assume your target group wouldn’t purchase an online subscription anyway. (I’m imagining that this isn’t marketed but just exists as a loophole for future-of-news geeks who otherwise wouldn’t pay.)
3) To curry favor with the anti-paywall crowd. Whether or not the Times cares much about the demographic I made up for (1) to describe people like me, they certainly care about their perception in the industry. And with the paywall going up, they risk being dismissed by new media gurus who see their move as ill-advised or backward. Why not demonstrate a commitment to experimenting with all sorts of new journalistic models? Sure, we’re trying a paywall, they’d say, but we’re also supporting ProPublica’s experiment by helping them attract donations.
4) To help a partner. The Times has partnered with ProPublica on numerous stories; ProPublica and NYT Magazine even shared a Pulitzer Prize. So the Times benefits, if indirectly, from increased revenue for ProPublica.
I’m imagining the donation mark for a Times subscription would be roughly in line with what the Times might charge for that subscription. So perhaps the ballpark of $200/yr?
So there’s the idea. What say you, New York Times?
Let’s assume that the Times benefits from retaining “Power Users” and that it wants to support ProPublica.
There’s still no reason to suspect that the power users will want to pay $200 to ProPublica rather than to the Times.
A more efficient solution would be that the Times could just offer free subscriptions to these power users and enjoy the benefits from retaining them as readers while casually reminding them to contribute to ProPublica. If the power users were willing to pay $200 to ProPublica for the sake of the public good then they ought to be willing to do so regardless of whether they get a free Times subscription or not. Moreover, the Times is still free to “help a partner” by subsidizing or contributing to ProPublica itself.
An alternative approach would be for ProPublica to buy some Times subscriptions in bulk for a discount below the subscription price (I don’t know if the Times would do this, but it might for the sake of a guaranteed income) and then offer them to people at some markup, collecting the difference. But really this is no different than the Times just selling the subscriptions and separately donating to ProPublica.
I don’t see a convincing reason to conflate charitable donations to ProPublica with Times subscriptions. I often suspect most of these “give to charity and get some tangible benefit” type offers are really about trying to exploit congitive biases and win consumers through the back door (whether for the charity or for the company making the offer).
Thanks for the comment. I agree with most of what you’ve said. My idea is definitely pretty narrowly tailored at my own frustration, as someone who reads the Times avidly and also is firmly anti-paywall.
I’m not convinced that someone willing to pay $200 to ProPublica should be willing to whether or not they get a Times subscription; extra incentives seem pretty standard for charitable giving.
I’m also not sure that it’s a cognitive bias to prefer paying money to support a nonprofit institution, rather than pay money to access a product from a company with shareholders. I agree the distinction isn’t as clear as we tend to treat it, but I think it does exist.
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