2011 is the year The New York Times will finally erect its much discussed paywall. The Times will charge “less than $20 a month” for full access to its site; non-paying users will have access to an unspecified number of articles outside the paywall.
As a heavy reader of the Times – exclusively online – I am not looking forward to this. I don’t plan, as of now, to purchase an online subscription, for reasons I’ve laid out before:
1) As much as I like the Times, I don’t need it. And I’d rather be asked to support good journalism than forced to pay for it.
2) If I am going to pay money to support good journalism, I want to know that my money is going directly to that cause.
Which brings me to an idea:
The Times should offer free online subscriptions to anyone who donates a certain amount to ProPublica.
I’d get to keep reading the Times while directly supporting quality investigative journalism. Not only is ProPublica exclusively focused on investigative journalism with “moral force”, it’s also a nonprofit so it fits well with my preference for charitable support over payment.
You might wonder why the Times would consider giving away subscriptions in exchange for donating to another organization. It might seem odd, but I can think of a few reasons why they might consider it:
1) To retain power users they might otherwise lose with the paywall. I’m not going to pay for the Times, for reasons I’ve laid out. Either they lose me as a heavy reader or they find some way to let me keep reading without paying them. Of course, the Times could care less about me, but I’d hazard a guess that the kind of user who is firmly anti-paywall and pro-ProPublica tends to be more engaged and influential than the median user. This demo isn’t very big, but I’d imagine it’s still valuable. It’s full of web-savvy power users who consistently share content through their networks. There is value in keeping these users, especially in light of (2).
2) It doesn’t cost the Times anything. Offering a few hundred free subscriptions costs the Times nothing, if you assume your target group wouldn’t purchase an online subscription anyway. (I’m imagining that this isn’t marketed but just exists as a loophole for future-of-news geeks who otherwise wouldn’t pay.)
3) To curry favor with the anti-paywall crowd. Whether or not the Times cares much about the demographic I made up for (1) to describe people like me, they certainly care about their perception in the industry. And with the paywall going up, they risk being dismissed by new media gurus who see their move as ill-advised or backward. Why not demonstrate a commitment to experimenting with all sorts of new journalistic models? Sure, we’re trying a paywall, they’d say, but we’re also supporting ProPublica’s experiment by helping them attract donations.
4) To help a partner. The Times has partnered with ProPublica on numerous stories; ProPublica and NYT Magazine even shared a Pulitzer Prize. So the Times benefits, if indirectly, from increased revenue for ProPublica.
I’m imagining the donation mark for a Times subscription would be roughly in line with what the Times might charge for that subscription. So perhaps the ballpark of $200/yr?
So there’s the idea. What say you, New York Times?