NY Times considering a higher priced ad-free subscription?

AdAge has a brief article about how the NY Times is considering ways to deal with ad-blockers, and quotes the Times CEO’s remarks as saying:

“We do want to offer all of our users as much choice as we can, and we recognize that there are some users — both subscribers and non-subscribers — who would prefer to have an ad-free experience.”

We can stop right there; we don’t need to read any further to understand the problems facing the NY Times. Unless their definition of “some” is “99%”, it’s hard to imagine who are these not-some people who prefer an ad-full experience of the NY Times.

Whatever they come up with, I will make a bold prediction: it won’t work, because they don’t want to address their real problem.

The reason this won’t work for the NY Times is that they are not actually proposing to offer any meaningful option for ad-free content. HBO is ad-free 1, but a viewer’s decision between watching HBO or The History Channel is more meaningful than just seeing ads or not. How many people want to pay less for an HBO subscription at the cost of “Real-Time with Bill Maher sponsored by High Times Magazine”? How many people are clamoring to pay more for a commercial-free version of “American Pickers” on The History Channel 2?

The problem is something that is deeply rooted in the print mindset: the newspaper is an atomic thing: you either get it or not.  And in print, that makes some sense 3.  But online, it does not.  For example, you might read one article a day or ten, but you pay the same regardless under current models.  There is no choice in how “much” of the paper you subscribe to.  Newspapers physically hit the streets (or get delivered) when they do, and the logistics of distribution don’t allow for more customized delivery.  But online, getting news flashes almost immediately may be important to you, or you may not care if you’re reading hours-old news.  Yet, there is no choice to the timeliness of the reporting.

There are numerous ways for the NY Times to offer real choice to its subscribers.  And when they find choices that their subscribers feel offer real, meaningful, extra value, then subscribers will gladly pay for it.  Until then, the paper’s offer is basically “you decide how much we annoy you.” No company is beloved for putting a price on how awful they act. You might be able to build a business model out of it.  But you’re going to be hated, like the airlines.

  1. To be fair, HBO runs promos for other shows, and there seems to be a lot of product placement, so they are not pure.  But still better than NPR…
  2. Maybe if The History Channel had real, serious, and groundbreaking history people would pay for it.  But not for infotainment.
  3. Back when I lived and worked in Manhattan, I would make a point of buying the NY Times on Tuesdays, as that was the day of the week science articles were published.  In some sense, then, even in print I was able to consume just a subset of the paper at a fraction of the cost.  But that’s kind of an edge case…