A subscription model that won't compete with print: the blindspot

Written by Michael on June 17th, 2006

Tear down the wall? At the Times, too early to say. But in the next few years, small papers should build their subscription strategy around this question: what on the Web is a substitute for print, and what’s not?

A model I like, but have never seen, is actually the inverse of the most common one. Instead of a permanent archive wall, it’s an ever-advancing blindspot.

For the next ten-to-15 years or so — until computers become almost as portable/cheap/comfortable as newspapers, that is — small newspapers should prioritize new editorial Web features with the following checklist:

1) Can it be done with information we already collect?
2) If not, can it be done with information whose collection is easily automated? (either through user contribution or computer algorithm)
3) Can it be presented in a way that is only possible or convenient online, so as to avoid substituting for the print product?

From this angle, charging for archives looks like the dumbest possible formula. We’ve all got colossal electronic archives. All we need to make them useful is a good search feature. And here’s the thing: archives don’t substitute for print at all. What subscriber saves two-week old newspapers for use as reference material? Online archives only add value. A free, well-ordered archive for a local newspaper would take it a long way toward its eventual goal: becoming the primary information site for its community.

Yesterday’s news is different. In most cities, you can get yesterday for 50 cents in the newspaper, or on the Web for free. Print and Web become substitute products — and get moreso with every redesign.

Okay, what about today’s news? I lean toward the Spokane model — breaking news and comment should be free. They’re dynamic. They can’t be done in print. They’re dealing with radio and TV competitors.

You can see by now what this all means: the sensible place for a subscription requirement is content from, say, the last three days. Farther back than that, it should all be free again.

I’ve never seen it done. I’d love to hear why not.

(Also: Yes, yes, I know, I should be preparing and posting my own archive of three-quarters-written entries instead of making a new one. Sorry, chum.)


2 Comments so far ↓

  1. Erik Gable says:

    As far as charging for newer content but making archives free, that's my inclination as well. I don't really understand the model in which papers make content from the last two weeks free and then charge for archive access … you mean you're going to give it away for free when it has the most value, then start charging after most of the value is gone?

    (That said, if a newspaper put ALL of its archives — from its entire history, which for many papers spans more than 100 years — online and charged for access, I can see a not-insignificant number of genealogists immediately buying lifetime subscriptions.)

  2. Michael says:

    I've thought recently about this theory while reading the press around Chris Anderson's Free. And actually, the free-for-last-Thursday-charge-for-two-months-ago model might be consistent with Anderson's "counterintuitive rules for charging for media online": don't charge for your most popular stuff. Charge for your unpopular but unique stuff.

    Release the head for free and charge for the tail, to use Anderson's schema.

    The question is: is archive content tail content? Certainly it's less popular than current content. But it might also be less unique, except in professional scenarios like your genealogist. If people's main way of finding your archived content is through their search engine, I like the NYT everything-is-free model best. That turns your archives into Google bait.

    I guess what I'd want to see is a solid study on how people tend to use newspaper archives.

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