A Requiem for My New York Times Subscription

After decades of being subscribers, my wife and I are giving up our home delivery of the New York Times here in Washington, D.C. We're going online for free, like everyone else we know.

Pajamas Media readers must be wondering how it could have occurred to anyone, especially outside of New York City, to subscribe in the first place, not why we would have decided to give it up. It's expensive: $56 a month, which is over $600 a year in what are soon to be scarcer post-tax Obama dollars. And it's biased, obviously; zero argument there.

If it falls financially for some reason I can't yet foresee on account of the sheer mendacity of its front-page performance this election cycle, I'll shed no tears and lift a glass to karma. But cut us a break -- my wife is a native New Yorker, I lived there forever, and even after a dozen years in D.C., the Times is still the hometown paper. And anyway, one of the asymmetries between right and left intellectuals (I'm a center-right law professor lost in a sea of left-wingers for whom Obama is savior but still scarcely radical enough) is that the right, being an intellectual counterculture, reads across the political spectrum. It has to, merely to be part of the conversation. Whereas the left? I doubt most of my colleagues have heard, for example, of the Weekly Standard, let alone read it. Pajamas Media? Forget about it.

No, the fundamental question is not whether one should read the New York Times. The question is whether (forgetting about the incontrovertible fact that it's expensive on paper and free online) one should ever pay for it. And that is a question about the New York Times' evolving business model -- the question interacts with the politicization and deep partisanship of the paper, but is still separate from it. What exactly are subscribers paying for?

Back in the '90s, the Times decided to try and become the national general newspaper for elites across the country. In other words, become in the general newspaper category what the Wall Street Journal had already become in the national business category. Costs of printing and distribution had fallen greatly, thanks to improving communications technologies, and so the costs of national distribution were not completely off those of the New York City metropolitan paper. Combined with a rising, affluent urban elite in American cities, the strategy was far from crazy. I thought it very smart at the time. I even used to own shares of the New York Times corporation.

But what these elites sought nationwide was not so much information as attitude. They wanted confirmation of who they were, not merely news of the day. The basic justification of a daily newspaper -- "this happened today" -- is the fundamental assertion that the daily news doesn't need to justify itself apart from saying, "it happened." This wasn't good enough for the emerging elite audience of a national newspaper.