Why the New York Times needs to think less about products and more about relationships

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Over at the Nieman Journalism Lab, media analyst Ken Doctor has a good overview of what the New York Times has in mind for “Paywall 2.0,” or the future of its subscription access plan — namely, micro-paywalls around specific topic areas or content verticals such as food, real estate and opinion. This is all well and good, but one thing made me stop short: namely, the fact that the paper refuses to call what it is doing a “membership” program, but insists on talking about it as a “premium product” offering instead. This is a mistake.

Why is it a mistake? Because personal relationships are what drive an increasing amount of media-related consumption and activity now — not products, but people. This trend has been fueled by social media such as Twitter and Facebook, but it wasn’t created by them. It’s an innate human desire, and (as I’ve argued before) the best pay models take advantage of that desire and build paywalls that are based on readers’ relationships with specific writers.

The value of this approach doesn’t just stem from the fact that it fits the way people consume media now — understanding and building on those personal relationships also helps newspapers learn more about their readers, and that can make it easier to target them with offers that make sense to them.

The Times wants to “maintain its distance”

What’s frustrating about the NYT’s vision of micro-paywalls — which CEO Mark Thompson also spoke about at the Guardian‘s Activate conference in New York on Wednesday, during one of the sessions I attended — is that it dances around the idea of a membership-based approach but stubbornly refuses to embrace it. According to Doctor’s post at the Nieman Journalism Lab:

“The Times has looked at a membership program, and backed away: The relationship just doesn’t feel right to the paper. It may well may be right about that. The Times isn’t our kissing cousin; it’s more like our brainy, sometimes-know-it-all uncle, respected but not exactly cuddly. Membership implies some closeness, and the Times likes — for good reasons and other reasons — to maintain its distance.”

It’s unclear what NYT’s reasons for doing this might be — some of them undoubtedly have to do with its vision of itself as a gatekeeper, and the sense of elitism that stems from that, as well as the idea that the Times‘ brand is bigger than any individual brand. But I think the paper is wrong to hold its readers at arm’s length, and I think doing so could make it substantially more difficult for it to succeed.

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We’ve already seen some pretty compelling evidence of the power of individual brands, whether it’s Andrew Sullivan’s go-it-alone effort — closing in on $1 million in revenue from readers — or the loss of former New York Times brands like Nate Silver and Brian Stelter. That trend is increasing, not decreasing. And yet the NYT seems to want to have nothing to do with it, or at least is failing to build support for that model into its pay structure.

Don’t hold your readers at arm’s length

Instead of creating micro-paywall products around topics like food, why not create a membership layer around individual writers and brands like Andrew Ross Sorkin and DealBook? In a sense, the Times is already partway there, by allowing them to create events that target their specific audience. So why couldn’t subscribers get access to extra DealBook content specifically? Or there could be a membership layer with personalization options, as Rex Sorgatz suggested last year.

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My view is that personal paywalls — or rather, premium memberships — are a better fit for the way that media works now than a blanket paywall around all of your content. The model starts with the relationship that readers have to a writer, and then finds ways to monetize that in ways that add more value than just a turnstile around the content: real-world events, access to special offerings, etc.

For me at least, the model is the music industry, where some musicians like Amanda Palmer have figured out that people don’t pay for the music — they pay for things that are related to the music, like preferred access to their favorite stars, or mementos of their experience (boxed sets, etc.). But at the core, it’s about their personal relationship with that artist. This is exactly the same type of model that Andrew Sullivan’s site is based on, as is a new site called Beacon.

Could the New York Times and other newspapers and media outlets take advantage of that? I think they could — but not until they start to see their readers as human beings that are worth having a relationship with, rather than an undifferentiated mass of consumers interested in new “products.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Libertinus and Shutterstock / Daniilantiq

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