When the New York Times activated its highly anticipated metering system this week, there was no shortage of opinions on the matter. As opinionated people, the designers here at Cooper started to feel a little left out, so we put our thoughts together on the user experience of the new service. Enjoy, and chime in with your own thoughts and opinions below.
Overall, I think they've done several things right, like the fact that home subscribers (even those like me who now only get the Sunday edition) get an all-access pass to the online content. Also, they're not throwing up a paywall over all of their content — folks can access up to a certain amount of content a month before you're asked to become an online subscriber. And they've thought about how to ensure that folks can read articles that someone has shared via email, FB, etc. We'll see how it goes, but I think that the iTunes store has pretty effectively proven that if you make it easy to do so and provide demonstrable value, people are more than happy to pay - even for something they could get for free elsewhere.
I do worry, though. Because the NYTimes isn't just a business. Their journalism is a public service that everyone benefits from. And unlike a burger or a pair of jeans, where some folks are willing and able to pay for higher quality and some aren't, and the provider can scale back production to match demand, journalism can't be scaled back and still maintain its quality. The fact that I view it as a public service is part of why it's so important to me to contribute financially — just like giving $$ to PBS. Sure, there are some who use it and don't pay for it, and I probably don't use it enough to justify what I pay for it, but I want it to be there and available to everyone. That, above all else, is what worries me about the paid subscription model. Because the prospect of a world in which only Fox News or USA Today can profitably succeed in the news business terrifies me.
I understand why the NYTimes is putting this policy into place. They are my go-to place for US and international reporting. We only recently canceled our NYTimes paper delivery — since I no longer work in Pleasanton, I don't have the long BART commute to read the paper. (Thank you, Cooper!). And it just felt like a waste of resources (trees, ink, and gasoline) to deliver a paper that we typically recycled without reading.
However, I'm utterly confused why readers have to pay more to view content on multiple platforms. In the morning and on BART, I read the NYTimes on my iPhone. At work and at home at night, I read the paper on my laptop. I'm not sure why I need to pay twice as much just because I'm using two platforms. I'm surprised that they didn't follow the kindle sales model, where you purchase a book and own it in the cloud, regardless of which platform you use to access it.
It would be great if they provided a way to ask for articles of interest to you. For example, if I'm interested in reporting on the Middle East, it would be great to be able to have a special category for those articles. It would also be great to have articles that assume that I'm well-versed in a particular region. For example, if I'm familiar with what has already happened in Libya, many of the new articles will review the recent history of what has occurred, so that I have to wade through information that I already know, in order to find out about the most recent developments.
So, after reading the “letter to readers” and looking at the subscription breakdown, I feel a little deflated. Initially, I was actually excited to pay the NYTimes for their digital media, and to help support them as they find a way to continue doing what they do best. However, I don’t like their subscription models at all for a very specific reason. I only read (almost only) the NYTimes on my smartphone, and I feel like I should have the option to pay for mobile-only content. If and when I buy an iPad, I’m pretty sure I would be interested in smartphone and tablet use, but still have little or no interest in the “online” content. Basically, I want to be a mobile-only user and that option isn’t open. From my perspective, they are missing the point if they don’t let their users pay for content on whatever device they choose.
I think journalists should get paid, and I think publishers should figure out a way to make digital journalism pay. I don’t understand people who talk about metering like it’s some violation of their civil rights, and yet I’m also a nerd, so I must admit that I did Google “nytimes metering hack” yesterday (out of curiosity, really), and I found some very interesting CSS (that I did not install).
Still, I do have a problem with the metering service as the NYTimes has implemented it: It seems both too complicated and too stupid at the same time. Why are there so many different options? Why are there different prices for iPads and iPhones? Why is the digital thrown in for free with print? Why is the NYTimes.com version a required baseline for all plans? And why the heck is the Dealbook blog exempted from metering? The investment bankers have been bailed out by the middle class yet again, it seems.
I would bet that these “tiers,” if you can call them tiers, were an effort to try to create “choices.” But the way they’re broken out makes me think that they’re simply the configurations of devices and content that were easier to track on the back end. I would argue that it gives the impression of "choice," without really making sense as a set of choices.
I'll go one step easier with a user-friendly model: How about one price for print + digital, and another for just digital? And how about charging the investment bankers double for Dealbook? That would help the NYTimes recover some of the $40M they supposedly spent installing the metering system.
Adding a paywall is like moving newspapers from the online street corner to the concert hall. Journalists shift from being free street entertainment to performers in a luxury experience that viewers will likely expect to work smoothly and look beautiful. I fear that paywalls will shut the doors on the common, limit access to the kind of information that should be freely available to all, but I am eager to see the good design that results as papers compete for online eyeballs that are willing to pay for their services.