Luke Andrews

The value of a subscriber

8 October 2012

I've recently pondered cancelling my Sunday New York Times subscription. I don't manage to read the thing every weekend, and it feels like a waste of paper when I can read the same thing on an iPad, the web and my phone. I quite enjoy the Times' iPad app, especially since the introduction of the retina iPad and its better-than-newsprint text. It's not perfect, of course. The app bizarrely insists on repeating the same articles in different sections. And it's still less conducive to the sort of serendipitous discovery that newspapers in print encourage, so I find myself reading fewer stories overall. But broadsheets aren't a perfect medium either. CONTINUED ON PAGE 22

I grew up in a newspaper house --- my dad wrote for the daily broadsheet in Vancouver, and brought it home with him every evening. When I moved out, I carried the habit with me, and kept a daily subscription of one kind or another until I moved to England in 2005. There it turned out that home delivery was uncommon, and although I bought various British newspapers regularly, the habit began to dwindle, especially as online news became better and better. When I moved back to North America in 2008, the newspapers I had enjoyed before had become empty shells in print, with more and more ads and style sections, and less and less investigative reporting.

Earlier this year I decided to try the habit again, with a Sunday Times subscription, in part because it included digital access for the rest of the week, and in part because I realized how little news I was consuming as my reading time was instead filled with tech blogs, Twitter and aimless Wikipedia wandering. Living in San Francisco, working in the tech industry bubble, I felt disconnected from the rest of the world, and I was hoping some news would combat that. It has to a certain degree --- I've regained an awareness of world events that I had missed, and the Sunday Times still has top-notch writing, especially the Business and Review sections, which both tend towards the sort of longer, thought-provoking essays that are in short supply in social media. Still, other aspects to the Sunday Times feel ridiculous and outdated. Entire sections are old news to me --- the Sports section doesn't include Saturday night's games for instance, since the print deadline is too early. Far too much of the front section is giant ads for women's shoes and fur coats. And don't even get me started on "T". (I think one time I tried to find the first article and it was about 60 pages from the front.) All this and a giant pile of paper every week to recycle --- who needs it?

But just as when they first introduced the "pay wall", it turns out that subscribing just to the digital New York Times, including all the apps, costs more than a Sunday print subscription, which also includes the same digital access. I pay $7.80 per week for the Sunday paper and digital access, while digital access alone is $8.75. What is this madness?

Way back in March 2011, on the very day the Times announced the new digital subscription scheme, Joshua Benton pointed out that they had essentially turned the Sunday paper into the proverbial loss leader. But he theorized that they stood to make more money this way since it would guarantee them 100% of the revenue from subscribers who wanted digital and opted for print as well, rather than the 70% cut they would make if the same people subscribed just to digital through the iPhone or iPad apps. Benton concluded it "actually makes the Times an extra $71.50 a year for those customers."

Fast forward to May 2012, and the Times saw an increase in Sunday print edition readership for the first time since 2006. Yes, their scheme worked in a crazy way: people like me weren't paying for anything previously, and now I'm paying for both print and digital. The thing to note of course is that advertising prices for print continue to be much more clearly defined than for digital. Every print subscriber is worth a predictable amount, and probably quite a bit more than every digital subscriber. In the case of the Times, they've obviously done the math and decided that the difference in revenue for a new print subscriber exceeds the premium one pays for not receiving the Sunday print edition.

The reality is that there are a great deal of ads in the Sunday paper, and advertisers are willing to pay --- a lot --- for me to see them. Yet there continues to be deep skepticism in advertising circles about how much digital ads are worth. And the Times itself is obviously skeptical too because the iPad app has very few ads, comparatively speaking. I suspect that digital ads are their own worst enemy in some respects since the click-rate stats they necessarily include hammer home at their ineffectiveness. Nobody measures "page-turn rate" or "didn't-even-open-T-magazine rate", but it seems like ignorance is bliss.

One can't help feel that there is still a serious reckoning ahead for this kind of scheme and its purveyors. In the short term, the Times may be able to bribe their readers to bring pounds of paper into their home every Sunday, but someday this isn't going to make sense. It already makes very little sense if you're not the national paper of record, and you don't attract the biggest brands that will stop at nothing to show you a leather purse. What we haven't figured out is really two giant problems: nobody has figured out how to subsidize investigative reporting with anything other than advertising. And nobody has yet proven how to do effective online advertising at a scale that matches the glory days of newspapers and magazines. Colorful, full-page ads are too intrinsically tied to the medium of print, and the attempts to transfer that online have either proven too easy to overlook or too annoying to survive. I don't claim to have the answers yet, but I sure hope the Times figures it out before the rest of the news industry disappears.