New York Times subscription plans all about one challenge: Reader migration

The digital subscription plans announced Thursday by the New York Times make clear that it’s time to retire the paywall metaphor. In fact, what the Times is really talking about is a forced march of its readers.

The variety of payment plans offered suggests a somewhat flexible forced march, but a forced march nonetheless.

The paper learned from its earlier, abortive forays into digital paid content that a single, simple route will not work for the wide range of Times readers — or for the various revenue streams the company is trying to preserve, grow or create.

So instead of charging only certain customers (overseas readers endured this experiment for a period in the 1990s) or charging only for certain content (TimesSelect singled out editorials and columns between 2005 and 2007), the latest plans seek payment for most of the paper’s content from most of its most devoted readers.

The meter scheduled to begin ticking March 28 will permit free direct access to up to 20 articles per month and many more if linked from various search engines and social media recommendation tools.

The Times highlights three payment options (each provides access for four-week periods):

Interestingly, that list does not highlight the payment option that represents the best value for readers, for the Times and, for that matter, for the newspaper industry in general. That’s the bundled access to all digital content that will accompany any of the various subscription plans available for delivery of the printed edition of the paper.

Spend $30 (less in the New York metro area) to get the Sunday Times delivered to your home for four weeks, and you get the same access that costs $35 for all-digital customers, plus the printed paper.

Some analysts have cautioned other news organizations to remember that they’re NOT The New York Times, and that what works for the Times will not necessarily work for them.

True enough — except for that print/digital combo offer.

More than any of the other schemes unveiled Thursday, the print/digital option holds potentially powerful lessons for publishers of all sizes.

That’s because it charts a path from print to digital that reflects the substantial revenue still generated by print (especially advertising), and because it recognizes the mixed media approach that more and more Americans are following in pursuit of news.

There’s plenty of room to quibble about price points in all of the options outlined by the Times Thursday. Steve Outing, for example, argues for a bottom pricing tier of 99 cents that he says would pay off by attracting so many more customers at the lower price.

Outing says it’s time for the Times to step up to the risk of pricing the paper’s digital products so far below print that it hastens the migration from print to digital.

But given the importance of print revenue to the bottom line of most news companies (in most cases, accounting for 80 to 90 percent), it’s easy to see why most publishers would disagree.

It’s also easy to see why, as Josh Benton points out, the Times is willing to subsidize the delivery of its premier journalistic product by pricing its print/digital combo offer below the price of digital only.

The combo option is available only to readers who live in an area where the Times Company provides delivery of the New York Times or, overseas, the International Herald Tribune.

For the tens of thousands of core readers who reside outside those delivery areas — or, as Benton notes, readers who just don’t want the paper edition — the Times might want to add one more alternative to its collection of reader migration routes. Call it the Sunday Gift Pack, and enable the digerati to link up with a school, a library or a newsprint-loving household that expands the universe of readers getting the news they need in the form they want it.

That’s the sort of migration — adding print as well as digital readers — that could help render the Times’ forced march of its readers profitable as well as flexible.

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