How many ways can the New York Times find to repackage and sell what amounts to the same content?

NYT newspapers

As expected, the New York Times has announced the launch of two new subscription products: one a stripped-down version of its content called NYT Now, an iOS app that provides a custom-curated selection of the day’s news, and the other a premium version called NYT Premier, which offers exclusive content such as e-books and special crosswords for $585 a year. It’s an ambitious attempt to slice the same loaf of bread in multiple ways, but will it work? I confess I am sceptical.

The context behind these announcements is fairly obvious to anyone who has been paying attention over the past year or so: the Times knows that the revenue from its main paywall or metered subscription plan is flattening out, and it needs to find other ways of filling the widening gap between its digital revenue and its still-declining print advertising revenue.

At an event last fall in New York, I heard CEO Mark Thompson talk about how the newspaper essentially had two main products — one that cost about $35 per month for the entire paper, and one that was free (although this significantly understates the complexity of the NYT’s print and digital offerings). Thompson said he wanted to find ways of filling in the spaces between those two ends of the spectrum, and NYT Now and Premier are clearly the first attempts to do this.

How many ways can you slice the same bread?

The risk for the Times is simple: As it tries to divide what is fundamentally the same content up into smaller and smaller pieces in an attempt to cater to micro-markets, the potential value of doing so will grow smaller — the law of diminishing returns.

On the one hand, this strategy is probably the lowest-hanging fruit available, and therefore clearly the most appealing. It gets to re-use or re-purpose the same content in multiple ways, by having someone “curate” a selection for NYT Now or by collecting it into e-books etc. At the same time, however, the fact that it is the simplest or easiest route to take almost guarantees that it will generate the least added value. Are people crying out for different ways to consume more of the same New York Times content? I’m not convinced they are.

In some ways, the Times is trying to arrive at the same place that a Kickstarter-backed startup might, but it is coming at it from completely the opposite direction: instead of starting by trying to build a relationship with fans by offering them rewards in return for donations, the Times started with a massively impersonal paywall around everything, and is now trying to convert that into micro-offerings. That’s an almost impossible task.

Membership needs to be personal

It might seem just as impossible, but my advice would be to stretch that idea in a completely different direction, by offering services or products that are based not around access to mass-market general news or things like the crossword, but around specific writers and/or teams. This is something I’ve written about a number of times before — the idea of a “personal paywall” model based on interests, instead of a gigantic, undifferentiated one that exists around all of your content.

Why doesn’t Nick Kristof have his own app or his own membership-level subscription plan? Why isn’t there one for DealBook that provides members with special benefits? If the rest of the media industry has learned (or should have learned) anything from the disruption of the music business, it’s that personal relationships are everything — and access to or engagement with those individuals is the key to monetization, not a one-size-fits-all paywall around everything.

For me, the most interesting prototype to use when comparing the New York Times‘ plan to an alternative model is Holland’s De Correspondent, a totally crowdfunded offering that has a growing subscriber base paying $2 million per year. That may seem like a drop in the bucket next to the NYT, but its model is arguably far more scalable than the one the Times is implementing.

Is there a way for the NYT to get from where it is now to where De Correspondent is? I honestly don’t know — but I think its latest plans are a step in the wrong direction. It feels like they are just adding smaller and smaller sandbags to the pile.

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Getty Images / Mario Tama

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