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.
The Times saw its target audience and with its desire to put sensibility over sense decided that instead of a daily newspaper founded around the facts of what happened, it would instead offer its readers a daily magazine.
Magazines are wonderful things. But there is a difference between them and daily newspapers. The newspaper says “this happened today,” and frankly that’s enough to justify the paper’s existence. The magazine, by definition, is an analysis and commentary on events — and for that reason, magazines are weekly or monthly events, not dailies. At their best, magazines are informed opinion — each of those a separate requirement. But they are always a matter of opinion. And that’s what the Times showcased on its front pages. A magazine of opinion.
The problem, from a business model standpoint, is that the Times is not a magazine. It is a daily. In order to price its product as the daily news, however, the Times has very deliberately asserted that its opinions are actually facts. We Pajamas Media reader/media critics tend to think of that as a political move, and it is. But it is also firmly located in the business model of a newspaper turning itself into a magazine — but trying to grapple with daily publication. It promotes itself as offering the facts, and charges for its front-page opinions as thought they were facts.
What’s the pricing issue, then? Facts are expensive. Opinion is cheap. And cocooning your elite audience in its own pre-formed emotional connections is cheapest of all. Facts are expensive to gather, produce, research, report — at least if they are new facts, or facts not already in the stream of discourse. That should have been the Times’ competitive advantage, as Glenn Reynolds and other new media types have said to the deaf MSM ears for years. New facts are worth paying for. By the time facts have entered the stream of written opinion, they have already been discounted to practically zero. Especially in competition with the Web, where so many bloggers write pretty well, thank you, and for free; opinion is not a value added product. Opinionification is commodification, and commodity pricing will not pay the rent in Manhattan.
The Times therefore had sound business reasons, not just political ones, for moving so heavily to try and price its cheap-to-produce, commodified opinions on the front page as “news” for which it could charge a higher price as facts. But in the end, the Web upturned all of that anyway. The Times had become a daily magazine, but it was pricing itself as though it were about the facts. It could market itself nationally because distribution and production costs had fallen — but they could not fall as far as the Internet’s near zero costs of distribution. This should be a wonderful thing, reducing costs of distribution, if the entire newspaper simply went online — except for one thing. What advertisers are willing to pay online is a pittance compared to print ads in the Times, and readers aren’t willing to pay for it directly at all.
The routinely sensible Times’ media columnist, David Carr, notes that more than 90 percent of the newspaper industry’s revenues still “derives from the print product.” A single newspaper ad in the printed newspaper might pay “many thousands of dollars,” whereas the equivalent online ad might bring in a mere “$20 for each 1,000 customers who sees it.” The online advertising revenue stream won’t support the print product, including all the reporters, editors, (supposed) fact checkers, and assorted staff that one might need if producing a newspaper based around facts. The easy conclusion, of course, is that a newspaper that is actually a magazine doesn’t really need all those people, and that is clearly the conclusion that the Times has reached, at least as far as the long term is concerned.
What represents the future of the Times? That’s easy over the long run; look and see what its online edition is doing now. It is doing what the online advertising stream will support — behold, Times blogger Judith Warner. John Podhoretz calls her America’s “most embarrassing online columnist.” I call her purveyor of inanities we might charitably call mommy-feminism-lite. But, considering the business model, it turns out that reaching deep inside yourself on a weekly basis to access your inner Warner-nature as a source of public authority requires little to no factual effort. Witless? Yes, and stupidity proportional to self-regard. But — well, whatever — because Warner is, in the Times’ new business model, remarkably productive.
What she produces is not factual reporting. It’s not really even magazine opinion (in the good sense of informed opinion). Instead, it’s group, indeed class, solidarity. She cocoons, like a nurse-ant tending to the slumbering larvae in their nest. Meanwhile, the Times’ elite national online audience confirm their prejudices and their biases. The Times is virtually transformed into a string of middle-school mean-girl messages texted nationwide to Warner’s posse. This is a nearly flawless harbinger of what the economics of online advertising means for the long term New York Times.
Which means that my family and I are (until tomorrow, that is) subsidizing through our annual print subscription a publication that the Times itself is already moving to discount by reducing the content quality to that of an online publication sustained by the trickle of pennies of digital advertising. The Times has seen the future, and it is not as a newspaper sustained by news nor a magazine sustained by opinion, but online cocooning of its smugly elite audience by “journalists” whose task is not to spend time digging out new, expensive, and quite possibly important facts, but instead to create, care, stroke, tend, and feed little online forums where they interact with readers and create little communities of the like-minded.
Were I a New York Times reporter — and there still are reporters, such as those on the Times’ business pages who have done a genuinely magnificent job reporting on the crisis, so long as it does not involve reporting on Frank, Schumer, Dodd, or Obama — I’d consider slitting my wrists with a rusty spoon rather than cuddle up online for a group hug with my readership. Read Judith Warner and you can see the future of the Times as the Times understands itself. The Times is a facilitator of elite onanism, convener of the elite circle jerk.
So my wife and I are finally going to start treating ourselves the way the Times so clearly sees us. It takes our dollars, but already sees us as readers of the online edition for free, as the Times learns to live under the economics of the Web. It won’t even sell its opinions masquerading as facts any longer. Instead it is moving directly to sell bias-confirming communities. The Times thinks even less of its readers, if that were possible, than I do. But given that it has discounted the content, I may as well discount the price. Water seeks its own level, and we — the Times and I — have found a new equilibrium.