Reviewing the Review: July 12 2009

The pop-economics book Free by Chris Anderson gets a fair consideration from Virginia Postrel in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. The placement is highly appropriate, since the New York Times has leaked the news that it might begin charging for web content next month.

I understand the appeal of a payment system to support the Times’ massive journalistic infrastructure, and if Times management does actually go forward with this ambitious plan they will be applauded by many within the newspaper and publishing communities who yearn to see an online payment model succeed.

The New York Times has a history of seeking out innovative revenue models for its website. Under the leadership of Martin Nisenholtz, who has remained at the helm of Times digital operations for a remarkable 14 years, pioneered the “demographics first” approach in the mid-1990s, putting up content for free but requiring registration information designed to attract advertisers. This kind of experimentation should be encouraged, but after careful thought I am sticking with the conclusion I expressed in my tweet above. If the New York Times puts its web content behind a payment wall, that will be the end of my lifelong relationship with the New York Times.

The reason is simple: excluding the mass online audience, the idle surfers and linkers who won’t be bothered to pay for access, would irreparably change the nature of the New York Times. Currently the best of the American mass-audience newspapers, the Times would become instead a private sheet for “influentials”, news junkies and insiders. Maybe this would help their profit-loss situation (requiring payment works out well for the Wall Street Journal, after all). But it won’t help their content.

It is the nature of journalism to seek readers, and today readers are accustomed to free, instant access. Fifteen years ago, the New York Times was able to sell itself to a mass audience while requiring payment (for print editions, since that’s all we had then). That favorable situation has been lost forever — no decision that Bill Keller and the New York Times executive board can make will allow the company to remain a mass market publication and also require payment for access. They are at a crossroads — will they remain a mass market publication, or will they require payment for access? They can’t have both.

The New York Times has the right to turn their back on the mass market if they so choose, and I would treat that choice with (sad) respect. I would, however, stop reading the paper. A closed publication would simply not appeal to me. I guess I’ll be spending a lot more time at the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish if this happens. To tell you the truth, I’ll barely notice the absence of Times news reporting from my life, and I will be honestly happy to never have to look again at their mediocre and highly Yankees-centric sports reporting. But I would miss their culture/arts reporting — books, film, theatre, art — immensely. This was always the New York Times greatest strength, in my opinion, and a payment wall in front of the daily Arts section and the weekend Arts & Leisure/New York Times Book Review would be a significant loss to the world.

Look at just two examples: the New York Times was absolutely instrumental in the early popular discoveries of Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. Can a newspaper with a cultural legacy like this continue to thrive behind a payment wall? I don’t think so.

Still, I’d get over it. I’m not interested in reading arts/cultural coverage that only “elite” readers are reading. That’s why I didn’t care much about the snooty New York Observer (the cherished newspaper of the Upper East Side moneyed set), and I won’t care much about the New York Times if they decide to follow the New York Observer’s audience model.

Meanwhile, let’s look at today’s Book Review. If the New York Times is so far above the quality level of all that “free” stuff you find on blogs and lesser newspapers online, why is Curtis Sittenfeld’s cover of Maile Meloy’s book of short stories Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It so badly written? Sittenfeld seems to be imitating the chatty, unfocused tenor of a typical MySpace entry. She tells us that she is now in Maile Meloy’s “fan club”, and that “whatever she writes next, I’ll gladly read it”. Yippee, but this is supposed to be literary criticism. Towards that effect, Sittenfeld’s article sometimes strains amateurishly for an academic tone, helping us understand what the word “restraint” means:

Though it might seem strange to praise a writer for the things she doesn’t do, what really sets Meloy apart is her restraint. She is impressively concise, disciplined in length and scope.

More often, she just spins, in clumsy sentences that lack a fixed narrative position:

Only one story, about the murdered daughter, really makes you want to slit your wrists; and, indeed, a wry humor appears regularly.

It just goes on and on:

Almost all her characters are flawed: lawyers, Montana residents, unfaithful spouses …

Is the bit about Montana residents supposed to be a joke? Maybe, but it’s hard to tell. This article would make a fine entry in a below-average literary blog, but it’s not good enough to ask readers to pay for, not when they can get content just as good or better elsewhere. If the NY Times moves to a payment model, careless work like this will have to go.

Fortunately, there are many better pieces in this weekend’s Book Review, like Michael Meyer’s look back at The Ugly American, a once highly influential fictional portrait of inept and offensive American diplomats at work written by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick in 1958. There’s also a good David Orr column on the life and poetry of Thom Gunn, and an approving look by Peter Keepnews at How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald, a book currently on my next-to-read pile.

There’s even a decent piece by Susann Cokal (who I will always remember as the author of probably the most vapid review I’ve ever read in the NYTBR) on Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress, apparently an Ahab’s Wife approach to the life of Charles Dickens. I’m sorry to learn from Cokal’s article that Dickens had such an unhappy marriage, but I’m glad the critic rises to the occasion and produces a readable and informative piece. I’m not going to join Susann Cokal’s fan club just yet, but I look forward to the chance to read her again. I hope I’ll have that chance.

10 Responses

  1. An interesting argument,
    An interesting argument, Levi, but didn’t newspapers reach a wide audience by charging a small fee? While other content on the internet might be free — for example, the stuff that HufPo aggregates & doesn’t pay its writers for — I can imagine paying for premium news content if the price were cheap and reasonable. If enough influentials subscribe and continue to link, those who want that content might too.

    Maybe it’s because I write for a major newspaper that’s operating in bankrutpcy, but it seems to me that online subscriptions may be a necessary component of the business model that will keep news organizations afloat – if such a model is possible.

  2. But Levi. Could you have
    But Levi. Could you have reasonably refused to read the NYT twenty years ago if you had to buy it at a newsstand or pay for home delivery instead of just having free copies handed to you on the street or dropped in your driveway? Sure, there were people who read trashed copies, or library copies, or copies left on a seat on a train. But would you have refused to buy a copy of the paper on principle because those people didn’t have the money or inclination to buy their own copies?

    Much has changed, yes. But has the economic rule which used to be as certain as the laws of gravity, the rule of paying for things of value, really beguin to vanish? How is this not a zero sum game?

  3. Carolyn and Katharine, it’s
    Carolyn and Katharine, it’s good to hear from both of you on this topic. I certainly do recognize the conundrum, and the fact that the NYT must be in a desperate position to have to consider a choice like this. I realize I haven’t come up with a better counter-proposal for how to keep a high-quality operation like the NY Times alive.

    And, yes, things of value *should* be paid for. However, are we possibly giving up too quickly on the advertising model? It does support television, for instance. From “I Love Lucy” to “60 Minutes” to “Seinfeld”, this great legacy was all free, all supported only by advertising. Is it possible that the reason the NY Times (and the LA Times, and the Washington Post) are suffering so badly has more to do with the current economic problems, the fact that retail spending is down and advertising dollars are down, than with a fundamental flaw in the advertising model?

    I don’t know the answer, but I hope this is the case. In fact, if our economy were to improve and advertisers were to begin spending more money on online ads, the NYTimes would probably begin to regret the decision to place content behind a payment wall, and would probably find ways to start sneaking ad-supported content around the wall.

    Finally, since Katharine asks about my “refusing on principle” to read the Times: I would not boycott the Times if they went behind a payment wall. I would just gradually lose interest in the paper. I can’t see reviewing the Book Review every weekend if the Book Review were not easily available to everyone reading my blog. It *would* change the nature of the New York Times to make this choice, and I think this change would gradually have a depressing effect on their public image. I would hope in this case that the LA Times and the Washington Post would respond by positioning themselves as the NY Times’s free and open alternatives, rather than following the NY Times’s lead …

  4. Walter Duranty — no famine
    Walter Duranty — no famine — Stalin great – Pulitzer pure propaganda. NY Slimes hasn’t changed that much since then ethically and morally.

    Arts and Leisure was a nice complement to LA Times Calender.

    I was an early account holder at the online NY Slimes. Remember how they used to have the front page facsimile up at the web site?

    I think what this comes down to is that the dynamics of paying for a paper daily is different than paying for it on line.

    Theoretically it ought to be worth 50 cents a day online if that’s what one would pay for it as hard copy. But, 1) hard copy is more valuable. It includes the paper — the print out if you will. 2) I don’t think the credit card economy is integrated fully enough in to the online experience. Putting down two quarters to pick up a paper is not the same as accessing online. There is not really a common enough mechanism to go to a web site and pay, say 10 cents, to read that days content.

    There’s going to need to be consortiums etc…

    I read Elijah Wald’s earlier book on Robert Johnson and the reviewer of his new book described it well. Wald’s a great scholar and this new book seems well worth reading. He’s got a bit of a screw loose, though, but that’s OK.

  5. The advertiser-supported
    The advertiser-supported model does not work online. It just doesn’t. Even the free alt-weeklies that never had a newsstand/subscription price to begin with are in trouble, because online ad revenues simply cannot support even a skeleton newspaper staff. And this isn’t idle speculation here — I say this as someone who was relatively recently laid off from a major newspaper. I was in the meetings. It’s not that there’s a flaw in the model, it’s that the whole model has to be needs to be scrapped.

    And don’t get me wrong, you’re absolutely right that if the NYT starts charging for access, it will remove itself from a lot of online discourse. It will become something of a boutique publication. Absolutely. But I think you have to realize that they’re entering into a scary position where they can either try to charge a small fee for their reporting, or they can stop doing reporting. And the chances that the LA Times or the Chicago Tribune will even be around to compete with them are looking slimmer by the day.

    So look, I’m not happy about this either. No one is. But if the option is paying $2.50 per month to get the NYT, or else resigning myself to getting all my news from the Huffington Post and Drudge, well, I still get enough unemployment to afford $2.50 per month.

  6. So long as newspapers and
    So long as newspapers and newspaper staff continue to thumb their noses at readers, bloggers, and commenters, what incentive does the audience have to support the newspaper? The fact of the matter is that newspapers are presently too afraid to take chances, mortified of offending advertisers, now in the process of calcifying the few interesting voices who remain into bland corporate shills (and it doesn’t help that these staffers are encouraged to write blandly because they are desperate to hold onto their jobs), needlessly committed to “rational” op-ed approaches over the fiery and passionate material that gets discussed at the water cooler (do we learn nothing from the sports page?), and, on the whole, terrified of the quirky and the eccentric.

    If a newspaper offered such qualities, now vitiated in the petrified forest that now sadly passes for “major newspapers,” or considered less generalized tastes, then there might be a revenue model. But when a “major newspaper,” which claims to be for the people, limits voices to vanilla and humorless hacks and continues to uphold the status quo (instead of challenging it), then it’s truly a minor outlet that deserves to die.

    Give people a good newspaper and they will pay for it. Give people a dull newspaper and they will ignore it. Constantly tinker around with the prices (as the New York Times has done) and people will throw up their hands in exhaustion, as Levi apparently has. But it’s really a question of content in the end. As Jimmy Breslin once said in an interview, “Boring. That’s a felony! These fellows writing — I mean, it’s a felony, your sentences are made of balsa wood.”

  7. Another fundamental
    Another fundamental difference between paying for a newspaper in the real world and online is the ease of transaction. Getting a print edition is easy – walk into a store, hand over some coins, walk out with paper (or insert coins into a kiosk slot, but same difference.) Paying for something online requires extra minutes of registration, credit card information, and so forth, and the more steps required to view something which many probably chanced on via Google News, a blog, Twitter, Facebook etc., inhibits the process. Now if the NYT adopted a model where casual viewers could still look at an article free from outside sources but those who wanted to could “opt in” and subscribe (Quill and Quire does this, as a matter of fact – I can read all their Omni articles free via Google but through the main site, it’s behind a paywall) it could work. Or take a cue from PACER, which makes micropayments work by charging on a quarterly basis from a minimum threshhold of ten bucks.

    There’s no need to go into all the ways reading print and reading online is different, but because they are, and online reading is more selective, I just can’t see a model asking people to pay for 100% blanket coverage working. Group the NYT into discrete sections and ask for a la carte subscriptions so people get what they want and nothing else. Or make the articles free and extra slideshows/deeper content for pay. And of course, if the content sucks and is not relevant, people aren’t going to pay for it, either.

  8. Well, with the amount of
    Well, with the amount of information doubling every 11 hours, I don’t think I’ll be buying any from them.

  9. Adding to what I said
    Adding to what I said previously: You’ve got to figure that a certain number of people on any given day in any given city will buy a newspaper just to pass some time. Maybe they are waiting on someone, or eating alone, at a bus stop, wandering aimlessly and sitting on a park bench, trying not to look suspicious for whatever reason, valid or not valid, you get the idea. Maybe they only read the funnies. Work the crossword puzzle. Sports. Headlines. Letters to the editor. Maybe some of those people never pick up a paper again, but the next day, somebody else is there to take their place. Tourist, maybe.

    So, if this happens in any given city, and if New York has a lot of people on any given day, which it does, that’s a lot of dollars that would never flow in through PayPal.

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