Fixing NYT Subscriptions

About a year after the New York Times launched its web site pay wall, they're reducing the number of free articles from 20 per month to 10. I don't think the change is particularly significant, but it does dredge up the issue of their pricing structure, which I've been meaning to write about for a while. In short, it's terrible, so much so that I'm disinclined to give them my money even though I enjoy the Times. At the outset, I should say that the NYT made the right decision to start charging for content. The newspaper business is changing, and print subscriptions aren't going to make a stunning comeback. The future of written-word news is online, and newspapers need to align their business models to that fact. Good coverage costs money, and papers like the Times need to find a way to fund their reporting.

My big problem is with the subscription levels and price points the Times has chosen. They offer three digital subscription plans:

  • Access to nytimes.com and smartphone apps: $15 every 4 weeks
  • Access to nytimes.com and tablet apps: $20 every 4 weeks
  • All Digital: Access to nytimes.com and both smartphone and tablet apps: $35 every 4 weeks

The first item of note is that plans are billed every 4 weeks, not every month. The effect is to add an extra billing cycle to each year. (52 weeks / 4 = 13 cycles.) The best spin I can put on this is that the Times is trying to align billing cycles so they're not dependent on variable-length months and with their print billing, which is weekly. But it just smacks of obfuscation: I get the feeling that they hope people will read "4 weeks" and think "month," making the apparent yearly price seem lower than it is.

It also makes billing less predictable. Most bills, like rent, credit cards, etc., are due at the same time each month. Even if you have automatic bill payment set up, having a bill due on the same day each month makes it easy to keep track of how much you've paid and when. NYT's billing model makes it much harder, because you have to work forward four weeks from your last payment.

My second issue is with the plans themselves. Why can't I just pay for the website? The NYT has a pretty good web site, and I'd probably pay $10/month for unlimited access to it. On the other hand, the last time I used the NYT iPhone and iPad apps they were are slow and buggy. I have no interest in using or paying for them. It also seems bizarre to that the $20 plan adds an iPad app but takes away the phone version. It seems like they just wanted to have three plans rather than two, and had to shoehorn in a middle plan.

Finally, there's a very strange price comparison with NYT's print edition home delivery. All NYT home delivery subscriptions include unlimited access to nytimes.com and the phone and tablet apps. That's true even for the "Sunday Only" subscription. Here in Washington, DC, Sunday Only costs $7.80 per week, or $31.20 every 4 weeks. That's $3.80 less than the "All Digital" plan, even though you're also receiving a Sunday paper. That means that here in DC, it makes more sense to buy the Sunday subscription and throw the paper away unread than buy the All Digital subscription. Granted, print subscriptions vary in price from place to place, especially outside of major cities, but it's still an odd concept.

If I were in charge, I'd change the Times pricing to something like this:

  • Access to nytimes.com: $10 per month
  • Access to nytimes.com plus smartphone and tablet apps: $20 per month
  • For print subscribers, free access to nytimes.com. Phone and tablet apps available for an additional $2 per week.

The basic, website-only plan is low enough to attract larger numbers of visitors. Not only could NYT make up for the lower price with higher volume, but that higher volume also generates more revenue from the advertisements on each page. Both apps are packaged into one, more expensive subscription for people who want to use them. The most expensive digital-only subscription costs less than the cheapest print subscription, which makes logical sense. Finally, print subscribers still get free access to the web site, but have to pay extra for apps.

If the New York Times adopted a pricing model like this, I just might pay for it.