A paywalled NYTimes is not better than free. Therefore, it will fail.

20Jan10

OK, so the whole world knows that The New York Times committed itself to stuffing the “free news on the internet” genie back into the bottle. Details haven’t been worked out, but the idea seems to be that they’re going to charge an access fee to “heavy users” while letting casual readers dip into a limited number of articles or pageviews for free.

I’m hardly alone in thinking this is a bad idea that will fail to fix the Times’s problems. But not because the very idea of charging for digital goods is an abomination. It’s a fine idea. But this particular version of that idea will fail because a paywalled New York Times is not better than free. And it needs to be.

Free is pretty great. It’s everywhere, it’s the bedrock of 10+ years of internet culture. So anything that costs money has to be… better than free. It’s that simple. So simple as to sound meaningless and tautological, perhaps. But it’s not. It’s just gotten obscured by a lot of hand-waving and hoo-hahery and answers to questions that are easier to ask than the one that really matters.

I have paid for digital goods with no gritting of teeth at all. You have too. But one thing HAS to be clear and true in order for that to take place. It has to be better than free. A five-year-old can understand this.

Example: I paid a couple bucks for the paid version of the Instapaper iPhone app. People pay for apps all the time, but I single this out because I’m not a heavy iPhone user (I only have an iPod Touch) and this is the only non-free app I’ve ever installed. I used the free version of Instapaper for a couple weeks and then (miracle!) I actually sought out the paid version. I was eager to buy it–and it’s on the expensive side for an iPhone app. This is the kind of customer any business–digital or otherwise–wants and needs in order to thrive.

Why is the paid version of Instapaper better than free? Because it is a more powerful product that does what it does BETTER and EASIER than the free version. (Is this sounding like a broken record yet?)

What is better and easier for readers about consuming news behind a paywall, compared to free? Absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell. It’s literally the opposite of something worth paying for: it removes ease of use, powerful functionality, accessibility, depth, and other things we’ve become accustomed to. Therefore it is unavoidably, fundamentally, inherently subtractive. What kind of person seeks out and is eager to part with her money for that privilege? The only way to make that transaction happen is to force someone into it. And the word we usually use for that kind of thing is “penalty,” “fine,” or–in the least-worst case–“tax.” And nobody puts up with taxes unless you’re the government.

So when the whole internet convulses over paywall announcements like this, we’re not flipping the bird to basic economic reality. (Well OK, some people are, but they are mostly 4chan types.) What we really mean is, “Don’t tax me, bro!”

The New York Times has a whole R&D division. Their mission is supposedly to develop new “products.” A tax on your best customers isn’t a product. Can’t they come up with something that’s better than free? Something I want to buy? Times Skimmer is super-neat and all, but it’s not adding any essential value to what’s already on offer.

I wonder what they’re asking themselves in that department–what the core unifying question is that underlies all their experiments. If, at the end of the day, it doesn’t somehow reduce to “What can we create that’s better than free?” then they’re kind of just fucking around while Rome burns, aren’t they?

It’s a hard fricking question to ask, but at least it’s a clear one. And answers are out there. Keith Kelly has some good ideas to get started with. (In fact, I stole the whole “better than free” coinage from him.)



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