A key detail in the New York Times' recent decision to introduce a pay-wall is that while it will charge (some) readers who visit the site's front page, it won't charge those who arrive via deep links – i.e. links found on other sites that lead straight to specific NYT articles. This is something we at the Publishing Project have been preaching for some time to industry execs, and I think it makes perfect sense.
But commentators seem puzzled. Perhaps Felix Salmon comes closest when he muses:
If this is true, then they're not actually charging for NYT content; they're charging for NYT navigation. What you get charged for isn't reading NYT stories, but rather navigating from one NYT page to another. If you get to that second page any other way — by following a link in your RSS reader or your favourite blog or a news aggregator of some description — then you need no subscription at all.
Close, but not quite. True, they aren't charging for NYT content, but they aren't really charging for 'navigation' either. What they charge for is being able to use the NYT site as a starting point for learning about the world, as a daily routine, usually in the morning, either over breakfast or as you settle into your office – in short, the service we've called news for generations.
Targeting people who use the site in this way has two key advantages:
- There is a strong overlap between these people and those who would be willing to pay. So you have (i) a higher chance of catching people who will pay, and (ii) a lower chance of turning away people who won't, which means you don't lose advertising revenues.
- Unlike other ways of reaching NYT via links found in other sites, routinely visiting the front-page is a direct substitute for routinely buying the print paper. So even if this turns away a few people, it should help the bottom line. (For people into innovation stuff: the front page does pretty much the same 'customer job' as the print paper, and competes with it. Other online behaviours are much less substitutive. See Ulwick's and Christensen's books for more on this idea of 'job').
Yes this is counterintuitive, and when I've advised publishers to consider it they often first react with some of the same objections now filling the blogsphere:
- Although your loyal readers may be only a small minority, they account for most of your page-views and your advertising revenues. (But this only means you have to be careful who you charge, and how much).
- If your competitors don't charge your readers will just switch. (But not if you only target your truly loyal readers, and don't charge too much).
- And then there's the PR - it's like a restaurant deciding to charge its best customers extra. (Except that it isn't – it's more like charging less for take-away food, plus giving half-price vouchers to first-time customers).
I've written about this many times before so I won't bore you with the details here. But one objection deserves comment. This is that by allowing aggregator traffic in for free, you are just handing the likes of Google News a gift. That depends on how you do things:
- If you allow aggregators to just copy your running orders then your readers may indeed switch, since they can get all your content there. The answer is not to allow this. This doesn't mean that you should block aggregators; it only means that you shouldn't let them just reproduce an RSS feed of all your links. Your running order – your aggregation of links – should be treated as copyrighted content, even if individual links aren't. Readers who want to know what you think is today's news should come to you.
- Aggregators have an edge over any newspaper's front page: they handpick articles from the world's media, bringing you what they think you should read wherever it may come from. The answer to this is simple: do the same; link out.
As the former bastions of free content begin to rethink their positions, these points will become increasingly key. This promises to be a very interesting year for publishers.