By Mike Steffanos
In November I wrote a piece about the Dolan's decision to charge $5 per week to access Newsday's website for anyone who wasn't a print subscriber or a customer of the Cablevision's Optimum Online cable internet (also owned by the Dolans).
I knew I wasn't going to be paying $260 a year for the five minutes a day I spent on Newsday.com. I sincerely miss Ken Davidoff's baseball stuff and David Lennon's terrific beat coverage, but nothing that has happened in the last two months has caused me to reconsider for a second. The cost was far above the value I placed on a few minutes a week reading those guys.
Still, I recognize that other folks would make their own decision on the perceived value of accessing Newsday's online content, and I thought that Newsday.com would attract a fair amount of subscribers, particularly from among folks in the paper's coverage area who didn't have Newsday delivered nor cable internet.
Sure enough, in only 3 months the Dolans have managed to entice 35 people to part with 5 bucks a week for access to the site.
That's right -- 35.
Out of a local New York metropolitan area population of over $18 million -- about 1/16 of the population of the entire country -- and millions more who live elsewhere but maintain ties to the area, Newsday has managed to attract a paid subscriber base smaller than my old High School home room (good old 327).
I know some people out there are convinced that any newspaper looking to charge for its content is simply being greedy, but I'm not. Advertising -- whether in print or on-line -- isn't paying the cost of gathering and reporting news, and I doubt that there will be much professionally reported content available for free ten years down the road. Where the New York Times is heading next, all the others will almost undoubtedly follow in due time.
I think the Times' proposed pay for content model is better thought out than Newsday's was. They're going to allow visitors a certain amount of free articles every month, then beyond that they will have to pay a flat fee for unlimited access. The Times hopes that allowing a certain amount of free visits will preclude a drop in traffic and a subsequent loss of ad revenue.
Traffic to Newsday.com has dropped considerably since they began charging a fee. According to the same New York Observer article quoted above, the number of unique visitors to the site dropped from 2.2 million in October to 1.5 million in December -- roughly a 33% drop. I doubt if the $5 a week from the 35 subscribers will offset the advertising loss.
So the Times' model seems to make more sense, although it remains to be seen how many articles per month they are willing to serve up for free and how much they will charge beyond that.
I enjoy spending a few minutes a day reading the Times' Mets content, but I don't think it's good enough for me to pay for, especially considering that your only choice once the free content is passed is a one-size-fits-all charge similar to Newsweek. The price tag they choose to put on a subscribing might make sense to someone who spends a lot of time on the site, but I doubt that it will make sense for someone like me.
Again, I fully understand the need for major news gathering entities to figure out how to pay the bills going forward. It's simplistic just to say that I'll only frequent newspaper web sites that don't charge for content, because it's likely that everyone is going to have to charge eventually. Still, in a world that offers ever more flexible choices in how we obtain information, I doubt very much a one-size-fits-all pricing model will be workable for anyone.