Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A $ign of the (New York) Times

Even as an action taken to ensure nothing less than survival, it couldn’t come at a worse time: effective June 1, readers of The New York Times will have to dig deeper in their wallets for their daily dead-tree fix of information.

The price of individual copies of The New York Times on Mondays through Saturdays will climb to $2 — the third time in 23 months. the Times' weekday price goes up at city and national newsstands by 50 cents, or 33 percent, from today’s price of $1.50.

The New York Times also is raising the price for its Sunday national and Northeast editions: $6 a pop, an increase of $1. In the New York metropolitan area, it will cost $5, a $1 increase.

While it’s of course completely defensible from a bottom-line perspective, given the industry's continuing decline in advertising revenue, there’s no escaping the fact that this increase — following others between July 2007 and now, in something of a rite of spring for The Times — comes during the grimmest economic period for the American consumer in generations.

The blogosphere (undoubtedly many of the very same cohort The Times needs to survive) has weighed in, with some remarks that should be at least briefly concerning to the company's brain trust.

CommonSenseMom at HuffPost commented today:

Three words:
Cancel My Subscription

Three more words:
I Have Internet

MED1025, HuffPost, wrote: Six bucks? I'll read it on line.

MED1025 may be onto something. With much of the best of the Sunday Forklift Edition available free at nytimes.com, and with the Times unwilling (for now) to re-enlist in a paid-content strategy, budget-conscious readers may make the digital switch and never come back.

◊ ◊ ◊

Scott Heekin-Canedy, president and general manager of The New York Times, answered questions about the fate of The Times on April 29, before the announcement of the price increase. “We must preserve and protect our print franchises while growing our digital businesses. We must invest to grow our businesses while aggressively controlling costs. We must control costs while protecting the quality of our journalism. …

“Our news, information and opinion content have never commanded a larger, more engaged audience than today. Our print audience is stable and is being replenished with younger readers. About 70 percent of our 1.1 million subscribers use NYTimes.com. Seventy percent have also subscribed for at least two years.”

That kind of duplication of print subscribers and online readers is encouraging; it points to the kind of loyalty that newspapers would kill for (or die for, as the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Ann Arbor News already have this year). But the current state of the economy — and the fact that individual consumers’ recovery is a lagging indicator of that economy as it improves — may well make some of those 770,000 Times readers rethink the belt-and-suspenders habit of their daily Times consumption.

The Times may be on to something; maybe this is one of those brilliant counter-intuitive moves borne less of inspiration than desperation. The implicit message to print readers may be "you get what you pay for, and you pay for quality."

Generations of loyal Times readers have made their peace with that. But when a price increase at the newsstand is as predictable as the heat of city summer, The Times is trying the patience and the finances of cash-strapped New Yorkers (enduring tens of thousands of municipal jobs lost just this year) and cash-strapped Americans everywhere else.
Image credit: New York Times front page: © 2009 The New York Times Company.

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