Paying for Online (Media) Information

James Surowiecki has a piece in the current New Yorker “News You Can Lose” (22 December) about the increasingly common disappearance of local newspapers. He notes that a common explanation for the problems faced by newspapers is that, like the railroads last century, they have failed to recognize what business they are in. If “newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net.”

True enough perhaps, Surowiecki writes. But something else interesting is going on: “The peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular.” We blog about what’s in the paper; we forward articles millions of times a day. I do it; you do it. What most of us don’t do, is pay for online subscriptions.

Why don’t I, as an avid consumer of news, opinion, and commentary, and as one of those bloggers who spread the renown of NYT content, have more online media subscriptions? Simple reason: they all require me to pay up front before I know whether and how much I will actually look at them in practice. Sure enough, that’s the same commercial relationship I have with them on the newstand or when I sign up for home delivery (not exactly — I usually don’t have to sign up for, say, a year at a time).

Why don’t they agree to at least split the risk with me? I sign up today and if I end up using them everyday, my annual subscription is X. If I only visit on average once a week, then I’ll pay, say, X/30. If I check them out only a few times and then never come back, they get a small token payment and we part ways. Notice that this is not “per use” pricing — that’s not attractive — it won’t work for either of us if I have to make new purchase decisions every time. But any media outlet confident enough to say “we think we’re good enough that if you start looking at our pages, you’ll be back regularly” would stand a pretty good chance of signing me up. And, if it turns out I really did like them and use them regularly, they’d get a year’s worth of subscription fee from me. I’d likely try out numerous publications under such a plan, knowing that in the end, I can stay within my media budget because I only have so much time to read. The one’s who keep me coming back get the bigger slice of my media spending (and their advertisers get my eyeballs and maybe even my clicks).

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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