The New York Times began its digital subscription service about a week ago. While occasional readers will be able to continue reading a limited number of articles per month (20), the paper is phasing out its free for all approach to on line publishing, about time too. Home delivery subscribers will get digital access at no additional charge.
The Times’ decision legitimizes the idea of charging for news content and now makes it all but inevitable that other papers will follow suit. Of course, The Wall Street Journal has had a subscription policy in place for a couple of years but the Times is more of a mainstream national paper and its decision will have more heft with the general public.
Subscriptions are nothing new, of course. What’s new is the digital aspect. It remains to be seen if this decision is the harbinger of a new era in publishing or simply the advent of new walled gardens for all papers.
A walled garden approach will mean that each paper has its own publishing and digital subscription infrastructure which it will use to lock in customers, much like paper, ink and geography have locked in readers ever since Gutenberg.
A more advanced approach, and one that is more appropriate for the twenty-first century, would be to brand the sub-sections of papers and for many papers to use a few subscription service providers (Aria, Zuora and others). The result would enable a reader to construct the reading equivalent of a play list — Sports from the Boston Globe (Naturally. How else can you get reliable Red Sox coverage?), World news from the New York Times, and Business from the Journal. At least that would be my pick.
Even without third party subscription service providers the branding and play list concept could still work though it might be a bit clunky, especially if you consider that one of the main jobs of the subscription providers is to aggregate demand and payment. Without them customers might be relegated to receiving and paying several bills for their eclectic electronic tastes rather than one. One is always better.
It’s taken too long for newspapers to get this far but let’s hope this is the beginning of a power curve and that things will accelerate from here.