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NYTimes’ “Fair” Prices

newspapers, online publishing By March 21, 2011 Tags: , 51 Comments

Today, both Jean-Louis and I struggle with the same topic: last week’s announcement of the New York Time’s strange paywall structure.

For a digital newspaper, there is no such thing as a fair price. Too many questionable assumptions, too many variables, too many ways to play with data. The Monday Note and my day job as the head of the French digital press consortium both gave me opportunities to work on such numbers for weeks. Intellectually stimulating as the exercise might be, when analyzing readers’ migration to digital, you can’t reach useable conclusions through a mere extrapolation of the eroding print model. Nor can you reliably model price elasticity in an electronic medium where “free” is the rule, “freemium” the minority, and paid-for the exception.

Let’s start with the basic problem: the free model (read: advertising supported) cannot provide the financial support for an ambitious, in-depth, global information enterprise. This type of organization is inherently expensive. The depletion of print readership (expect a real 5-8% drop every year), and the corresponding loss in advertising revenue create an urgent need for new financial models. Otherwise, the likes of the Huffington Post will find nothing to aggregate other than the vast echo chamber they built their ephemeral value on.
As the past fails to provide a solid foundation, the most prudent way of building a new business model starts with basic building blocks. For instance, the cost of a high-volume digital transaction platform for news products (all sorts of products, not just dumb PDF shovelware) should be around 8% to 10% of revenue, all included. Then, covering the news should require x hundreds of editorial staff, y dozens of support positions, all costing z. In addition, the news organization’s value proposition need to be factored in these numbers. That value proposition, in turn, translates into who and how many would be willing to pay for such (perceived) qualities. All this leads to the most important task: rethinking the organization in order to achieve these goals — in a context where the print’s old money flow now looks like a dried-up creek in Summer.

Trial and error is the only way to find answers to all these questions. Experimenting requires humility, agility, ability to learn from mistakes. Let’s admit it: such traits are in short supply in century-old news organizations that – until recently – thrived on their unchallenged confidence. In contrast, an ability to adjust quickly is a dominant feature of the most successful digital companies. Another characteristic of the best tech companies being a relentless quest for simplicity. As an example, think of Apple’s fixation on removing unnecessary buttons and dials, or just look at Google’s main search page.

Unsurprisingly, the New York Times chose the opposite path. One possibility entailed weighing how much its large audience of faithful readers would be willing to pay for its content and shooting for a single subscription price aimed at generating volume. Instead, the NYT went for a convoluted pricing structure.

In a nutshell: after reading 20 articles over 4 weeks, you hit the wall. Then you must choose your plan: $15/month for web viewing + smartphone; $20/month for web access + app on a tablet; or $35/month for accessing the NYTimes on all devices (something the most valuable regulars do), details here. It took 14 months, and according to the Times digital czar Martin Nisenholtz, reams of market research to come up with this. I also involved a serious investment : $40m-$50m (!!) according to this Bloomberg story.

The New York Times paywall is like the French tax system: expensive, utterly complicated, disconnected from the reality and designed to be bypassed.

Loopholes abound. To avoid hitting the wall, take your pick:

  • Use different email accounts. If, like me, you own or operate several different domain names, bingo!
  • Easier: use three browsers as the cookies placed by the NYTimes on each are not interconnected; if you have Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari, that’s 80 stories a month! The paywall is fading away.
  • Delete your cookies. Many paranoid users do it every day, sometimes automatically. Deleting cookies introduces several drawbacks for those who want to navigate quickly, but penny-pinchers will like it.
  • Visit the NYTimes from other sites, such as Twitter or Facebook, but in fact from any site, including Google (see Jean-Louis’ view on this below).

This list goes on an on.

Whom is this paywall aiming at? According to the Times itself, about 15% of their current readership will hit the wall. The bet is that segment – affluent, busy, non-nerdy – won’t bother tricking the system and will instead pay up. Let’s accept that assumption and run the numbers (and notice the level of uncertainty):

Global audience for in February, according to Comscore, 48.5 million unique visitors worldwide. (Note that no one uses Nielsen numbers any longer.) Should we focus the analysis solely on the domestic market and reduce the UV number to 32m? Advertisers would agree: foreign audiences carry little value. But, when looking at those potentially willing to pay for the NYTimes, the answer is the opposite: let’s stick to the 48.5m.

Now, let’s remove those who just fly-by, i.e. people coming from search engine or social medias: they will look at one story and jump elsewhere. Google accounts for 15% of the NYTimes traffic; Facebook, 4%. Add others such as Twitter and round it up to 25% of the global audience. This leaves about 36m monthly regular users to play with, of which 15% (5.4m), according to the Times’ estimates, are heavy users likely to hit the wall. How many would take the jump and pay? And how much money would they contribute to the Times revenue line?

Here are the numbers for an average monthly spending of $20.00 :

Transformation rate => number of subscribers => annual revenue

5%  => 270,000 => $65m
10% => 540,000 => $130m
15% => 810,000 => $194m
20% => 1.08m => $259m

OK. Let’s stick to a reasonable 10%. How does the extra $130m compare to the current Times revenue structure? In 2010, The NYT Media Group (print + digital) made $1.55 billion all together. $780m came from advertising revenues, of which about $160m from Interestingly, 44% of the total  ($683m) came from circulation — at $2.00/day in newsstands, the NYTimes is expensive.

In this case, the Grey Lady’s digital operation would total: $130m+$160m = $290m. This is enough to support the huge 1000+ editorial staff (the newsroom expense line is said to be in the $200m range).

Let’s stop here. The New York Times’ pricing structure, the fact that it is also designed to protect the paper’s physical circulation, the paywall’s porosity all complicate projections. One thing is sure: $35 a month ($420/year — $455 year for 52wks) to view the online paper on three devices is ridiculous, not matter how elitist the target group is fantasized to be. You simply don’t charge such an amount in a (US) market where services like Hulu or Netflix cost $7.99 per month. The Times would have been better inspired to go for a simple $15 a month on all devices. Such a price would allow to shoot for a goal of 2 or 3 million digital subscribers worldwide within three years. This would yield $360m-$540m in extra revenue, corresponding to between 5% and 8% of the regular digital readers mentioned above. For a global brand of the NY Times’ stature, such numbers are not unattainable.


The NY Times: Un-Free At Last!

newspapers, online publishing By March 21, 2011 Tags: , 28 Comments

On March 28th, after much handwringing, the New York Times will finally deploy a paywall. NYT fans, your author included, rejoice: We see this as a necessary condition for the newspaper’s survival. Necessary…but not sufficient. A “small matter of implementation’’ remains an obstacle on the paper’s path to greatness in the digital era. A matter that, so far, doesn’t seem to have received sufficient attention from NYT execs.

Let’s start with a test…and no peeking: How much do you pay for an iTunes “song”?

If you answered “about $1,” you pass. A little less, a little more, the exact number depends on the whims of unseen seers, but, yes, about a dollar. And that reliable debit, give or take a few pennies, feeds an important psychological criterion. You’re free to focus on choosing your music, unencumbered by price considerations.

You’ve graduated to the next level: How much for a New York Times digital subscription?

The pleasant reassurance of a readily available “close enough’’ answer is sorely missing.

See the NYT’s Publisher’s nearly impenetrable calculus in his letter to readers, dip into the lengthy FAQ, and finish with this buggy article in the paper’s otherwise excellent Media & Advertising. You may also want to peruse the 2141 reader comments. By itself, the number gives a temperature reading.

You’ll need an accountant and an attorney to traverse the maze of plans and to decode the fine print in the NYT’s paywall T&Cs, but as I understand them:

  • The first 20 articles in a “calendar month” are free. After that, you’ll be nudged towards a $15 subscription for 4 weeks of Web access.
  • Smartphones? An iPhone, Android, or Blackberry app is included with the $15 deal. For one year of 52 (4 * 13) weeks, you’ll pay 13 * $15 = $195. Yearly subscriptions aren’t offered. But do I have to pay twice if I own both an iPhone and a Moto Droid?There’s no Web-only deal. The basic $15 rate bundles Web and smartphone access.
  • If you have an iPad you’ll pay extra: $20 per 4-week billing cycle = $210 for one year.
  • Other tablets? Not yet.
  • You want access from all of your devices? PC, smartphone, iPad, Times Reader 2.0, the NY Times app from the Chrome Web Store…that’ll be $35 for 4 weeks, $455 for a year.
  • If you’re a paper subscriber, the NYT elders smile upon you: You’ll have access to everything from all your devices with no unseemly display of surcharge. But it depends on the deal you make: new subscriber, renewal, special offer, a conversation with a Customer Retention Specialist… It all sounds like dealing with a cell phone carrier or a cable network provider or an airline. Three well-loved businesses.
  • For e-book readers such as the Kindle and the Nook: Sorry, no access at this time. (Amazon will sell you the NY Times newspaper, but it doesn’t give you access to the site.)
  • What happens if you touch a page through a search engine, through your friend’s Facebook wall or Twitter tweet, through a link on someone’s blog? Free…unless it’s not. Some visits fall within the 20 articles/month rule; others, such as through Google links, will have a 5 free articles-a-day limit. One can see what an enterprising geek could make of this. How does the NYT know it’s you coming back for one more hit of their good stuff? They do it through cookies. $195/year is a good incentive for a little bit of “cookie management” and IP address spoofing.

I might have misrepresented a clause or two, but the overwhelming truth remains: This is a failure of the Mind more than a failure of the brains. The NYT decision makers are without a doubt exceedingly intelligent and hardworking. But are they steeped in the Web’s culture, in the smartphone/tablet revolution?

Customers don’t make decisions with their neocortex, an organ that is too easy to bullshit. They decide within deeper, comforting recesses, and they rationalize when the culture demands a seemingly logical, socially acceptable “post-planation”.

What price do NYT’s execs put on simplicity, on ease, on reader enjoyment vs. catering to their own internal discourse? If they don’t like talking to Steve Jobs (and vice versa) they could turn to Jeff Bezos for tips on simplicity.

iTunes has taught us that customers are willing to pay for content if the process is simple, if it’s easy on the mind and the wallet. One could argue that consumers aren’t paying for the content, they’re paying for the delivery service.  Regard Netflix on Demand, to use another example. Restricted content, instant delivery, success.

All of this is well known, analyzed, taught in business schools. The brains at the NYT should know all of this.

Instead of the cellular plan language above, the Grey Lady could proudly offer the following:

  • A 4-week subscription costs $15. It works across any combination of the following devices: [list here. more devices as we go].
  • Paper subscribers…thank-you, and you’re welcome to our digital content on all supported devices, gratis.
  • Not a subscriber? Not a problem. You can “touch” 20 articles a month for free, regardless of the source.
  • We know there will be “enterprising” individuals who will try to circumvent our paywall, and we understand the seduction. We’ll stick to positive countermeasures: we’ll protect our content by offering superior apps that deliver superior joy of use.

So…why doesn’t she?

We know readers will pay for content. Consumer Reports and The Wall Street Journal prove it, but with an important difference: They’ve always charged for their content so they’ve never had to face readers’ withdrawal symptoms.

Or perhaps I missed an essential cog in the NYT money pump. Looking back to the 5 articles per day limit when coming through Google, vs. 20 per month by other means, including links on the NYT main page…I smell a deal. Is money flowing from Mountain View to Manhattan despite the Lady’s rage against aggregators such as Google News (while never cutting them off)? Does Google subsidize 5 daily articles by kicking back a fraction of its advertising revenue to the NYT?

From an advertiser’s perspective, this becomes a dubious proposition. Ostensibly, the paywall strengthens the NYT’s pitch to advertisers: You know we have a “bankable” audience; our readers are willing to buy in. The first 20 articles a month are free. They’ll get hooked. But (the advertisers respond) if anyone can have 140 free articles a month through Google…doesn’t this weaken your “select audience” argument?

Advertising dollars aside, business model transitions are hard, some say impossible. As my compadre Frédéric has shown many times in previous Monday Notes such as this one, the ARPU falls dramatically when moving from paper to pixels pushed around the Internet.

The transition conundrum is this: The Internet is killing paper and Web advertising won’t keep a newspaper afloat, hence the recourse to a paywall after years of free access. This might explain the Grey Lady’s unseemly contortions.


Expanding Into New Territories

advertising, newspapers, online publishing By October 24, 2010 Tags: 27 Comments

In defining business strategies for modern medias such as online newspapers, the most difficult part is finding the right combination of revenue streams. Advertising, pay-per-view, flat fee… All are part of the new spectrum media companies now have to deal with.

The gamut looks like this:

As we can see, newspapers mostly consist of one product line, confined to the mainstream, value-added news category. By going digital, this segment is likely to lose most of its value (expect a 60% meltdown as expressed in revenue per reader). Therefore, for these companies, it becomes critical to expand into new territories already taken over by other players. For instance, big media outlets endowed with strong brands should go into commodity news and participatory/social contents. This doesn’t mean a frontal attack on Facebook or Twitter, obviously; instead, the new reality dictates using and monetizing through them (see last week’s Monday Note on Facebook monetization).

Ancillary publishing should also be considered a natural expansion: news outlets retain large editorial staffs that could be harnessed to produce high value digital books (see this earlier Monday Note on Profitable Long Form Journalism). The “Events” item, on the list/graph above, is more questionable, but it remains a significant source of potential income tied to the brand’s notoriety. I left aside the classifieds business: except for a few media groups (Schibsted all over Europe or Le Figaro Group in France) that boarded the train on time, positions are now too entrenched to justify an investment to gain a position in that segment.

Advertising is likely to remain the biggest money maker for the two dominant categories: Commodity/Participatory/Social Media and Mainstream Value-Added. Unfortunately, in its digital form, advertising has run in deflationary mode for the past decade due to flat (at best) CPMs, with huge inventories putting further pressure on prices.

Print doesn’t look great either as investments shift en masse to digital; this reflects the growing imbalance between time spent by users on print and advertising investments in the medium. According to Nielsen Media Research, the Internet now accounts for 38% of time spent but only for 8% of ad spending; newspapers are on a symmetrical trend as they captured 20% of advertising dollars for only 8% of users’ time.