Lectern

By Steve Kelman

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Will students pay for news online?

A Facebook friend (Tom Stewart, former editor of the Harvard Business Review) posted a status update link to an article noting that The New York Times has attracted about 100,000 paid subscribers to its no-longer-free website in its first three months of operation. Considering that the Financial Times, a premier business fee-based website, has a total of about 225,000 subscribers after a number of years, the article’s author said the Times' numbers look pretty good. (The article gave no figure for the current number of subscribers to the online Wall Street Journal, but it is presumably larger.)

The New York Times allows you to read some articles free each day but requires a paid subscription for more.
 
By coincidence, I was sitting next to a student of mine at an event today and saw her reading The New York Times online, so I asked her whether she had subscribed. She said she’d won a free one-year subscription from Lincoln (the car company). She would be willing to subscribe, though, she added.
 
She then told me that about half of the Kennedy School master's degree students she knows have forked over the cash to pay for the Times online, and half have not. What are the others doing, I asked? It seems that all follow one or more news sources online, which is not surprising, given that these are public policy students, but nonetheless gratifying. She said that some of her friends were closely tracking the number of articles they accessed each day on the Times website, to keep under the number that allows you to continue free access. Some were gaming the system, she added, by using search engines for article titles or topics and being taken directly to the article, which apparently does not count against the free downloads numbers. (Times, take note?)

Still others were switching their primary news source from the Times to free sites such as The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, or even -- dare I inject an editorial comment? -- the Associated Press. Interestingly, she didn't mention other sources such as The Huffington Post as primary news sources.
 
The ability of quality newspapers to survive long-term may hinge on the success of the Times' experiment, so it is interesting to hear how this elite group of students is reacting.
 
After asking her about alternative sources, I said to my student -- pointing to a "hard" copy of the Times hanging out from the side of my briefcase -- "Well, you could take a really radical step and subscribe to the hard copy."  She looked at me strangely, as if I were joking, or crazy.

Posted on Apr 22, 2011 at 7:26 PM


Reader Comments

Fri, Apr 22, 2011 Steve Kelman

Zack, I read about this thing about 99 cents versus $15 a month in the report -- in the New York Times of course -- of the company's quarterly earnings this afternoon. I thought I must be misunderstanding -- can they really expect people to pay $15 a month??? I am guessing that they will craftily price home delivery of the Sunday paper at around this level, get a lot of Sunday-only hard copy subscribers who then get the online free. But that option won't be available to people outside the US, who I think are a big market for the online Times. I will leave this to the business experts, but this seems a bit strange to me.

Fri, Apr 22, 2011 Zack Hughes Cambridge, MA

Hi Prof. Kelman, It's true that NYTimes.com's initial numbers are good, but those statistics are hugely misleading: the introductory rate for the first month was only 99 cents! After that, the rate is going up to around $15/month. 99 cents is basically a negligible amount, but I bet a lot fewer people will keep up their subscriptions once they start getting charged $15. I used to read the Times religiously, but I won't be anymore now that they're charging. It's a great newspaper and I'll miss thumbing through it on my BlackBerry. But I'm a grad student, I'm on a budget, and there are countless other adequate sources of news available for free on the internet. I've started reading more CNN.com and Boston.com, and getting more of my international news from British and Canadian sources. We'll see if I start to feel less informed or not going forward... ZH

Fri, Apr 22, 2011 Steve Tursky Fairfax, VA

Recently I was reminded on my Blackberry when I tried to get into the New York Times website that I had exhausted my 20 free monthly articles and that I should subscribe. With regard to the quizzical look that your student gave you when you suggested that she subscribe to the real newspaper, I found out that if you subscribe to the "real" newspaper, all online content is free. I like that idea.

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