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The Times should focus on niches, not Silver and Gold

Yet another stage of the New York Times’s exploration of paid content options has come to light via Gawker, which has posted the text of two potential content packages, labeled “Silver” and “Gold.” It’s clear these are hypothetical options; Gawker quotes a Times spokesperson as writing them that “It’s very early in the process. We are still in the data collection phase.”

As described in the survey, Silver would be priced at $50 a year and offer benefits called FirstLook (early access to some stories) and BackStory (extra background on some stories), as well as TimesWire (now free) and TimesMachine (an archive service now largely free). You also get some extras including bling (coffee mug, tote bag, baseball cap, or a copy of the New York Times Style Guide) and discounts on photo reproductions and other stuff from the Times store.

At the Gold level, you would pay $150 a year for all of the above plus TimesEvents (preferred access to events organized or sponsored by the Times), and TimesInsider (personal access to some Times writers).  The pitch for Gold is “with NYT Gold, you won’t just read the Times, you’ll experience it.”

Silver and Gold sound like packages dreamed up by Times execs who were thinking, “how can we add a couple of layers to the free content we’re putting on the site, and make it look like something some people might pay for?”

And what they came up with was something that resembles how memberships are generally packaged at cultural non-profits like the museums, opera companies and symphony orchestras of New York City, which those Times execs are undoubtedly members of. As a museum member, you might get similar invitations to special events, admission to special exhibits, a chance to meet the curator, behind-the-scenes tours, discounts at the museum store, and so on.

But the Times is not a museum. It’s a business with customers. And rather than creating general access packages that are aimed at all of its customers, the Times should look at the many specific niche interests of its customers and offer packages aimed at as many of those niches as possible. Few people are willing to pay for broad news content, no matter who they get to rub shoulders with, but many people are willing to pay for content relevant to their passions. If the Times asked their customers about that, they’d find that frequent traveler might be willing to buy premium travel content; a film buff might pay for deeper movie content; an avid gardener might pay for specialized horticultural material. The Times should think about a suite of TimesChannels: TimesTravel, Times Tech, TimesGourmet, TimesDesign, TimesGarden, TimesArt, TimesFilm, TimesWeather, TimesPuzzles, TimesBooks, TimesPolitics, TimesFinance, TimesWhatever, each with much deeper content than the free website has, each priced at $50 a year, and each potentially capable of attracting an audience as large as TimesSilver or TimesGold might get.

                                   
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  • http://www.twitter.com/seamuscondron Seamus Condron

    I like the idea of memberships that target a niche, but for those who are interested in multiple niches, it could get pricey. I’m not sure how broad interest would be in the “Times TV” stuff that you guys reported on from their R&D labs, but that’s something I’d could see myself paying for.

  • Dave Barnes

    One additional level.
    DOA.

  • Matt Tracker

    This is the worst idea I’ve heard in a long time.

  • http://mediumrun.blogspot.com Michael Andersen

    Just another price point here: I’d would pay maybe $20 for Martin’s “TimesFilm” (that’s irreplaceable content, for me) and $10-$15 for the TimesPolitics. Maybe more in a presidential election year.

    Actually, the most irreplaceable news content I get from the Times is probably the national desk and other big trend stories. I might pay $15 a year for that.

    I’d love to hear others weigh in.

    I’m a 28-year-old reporter, live in Washington state, make $33k a year, skim through the NYT site daily, and only read their print product when I’m traveling.

  • http://twitter.com/aaronchimbel Aaron Chimbel

    I think niche pricing is one of the better ideas. The key will be providing niche content, or level of content, people can’t get other places.

  • eduarso

    “times weather”? weather is already commodity-level info…

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Michael, thanks for pointing out that pricing might be variable, like airplane seats, as we’ve discussed here before. So some of the niches could have several pricing tiers depending on the deepness and richness of the content.

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Eduarso: sure, weather is a commodity, but true weather junkies will pay for the best access to maps and other tools while the average person just wants the forecast. See the weather packages offered on this Australian site, for example: http://www.weatherzone.com.au/about/whatweoffer.jsp
    Only the $5 subscribers get the fanciest maps and data.

  • http://byjoeybaker.com Joey Baker

    My reaction on reading the sliver and gold plans was “meh, why not?” I imagine that some people will pay for these extra features which will take some (but little) extra work to produce. I say they should go for it – experimentation is the name of the game!

  • TC

    Niche idea is great. But wouldn’t that require a lot of additional investment by the Times to populate all that deep content? How much would they have to charge to make up for what they’re losing (or not making) now, PLUS cover the added cost of all the new content?

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    TC: Absolutely, it would require investment. But there’s a cost to Silver and Gold, as well. And notice that Silver and Gold both include services that are now free. For many of the niches, in addition to building deeper content, the Times could move some existing content to the pay side of the equation — material where they know only the serious followers of that niche go. The Times actually has content like that; many papers don’t.

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  • Casey Chapple

    No, no, no, no, and, irreconcilably, no.

    The Times is trying not to fire anybody right now. How do you think you would ask these reporters to write more at length and “deeper”? And why would you think less well-off people would not miss “serious” content?

    Setting up exclusive areas is elitist and antidemocratic. The Times online needs an across the board annual fee of no more than $50 which gives access to all areas and archives. If certain news aggregators want to use Times content, they should pay a negotiated price for the right to do so.

    For extras, I would pay for the ability to download to my Kindle (after the Times gets out of its ludicrous c ontract with Amazon) the Book Review, the Science section, Magazine articles, and so on.

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  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Casey: Sure, admirably and correctly, the Times has held on to its key talent as much as possible. That doesn’t mean that continuing to do business as usual, with a pseudo-value-added paid content scheme like Silver/Gold, is a good strategy.

    The larger context here is that there’s an irreversible shift of consumer preference (in terms of time, attention and convenience) away from print and toward digital delivery.

    That shift is going to entail charges for content, but it’s the niche interests that will enable charging, not the general news. How you get from here to there, in terms of generating higher value niche content for those packages, is a different question, of course.

    Your suggestion (if I understand it right) that the Times enable sectional subscriptions on Kindle is excellent, I think, and very much lines up with having niche subscriptions on the Web.

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  • Casey Chapple

    Martin, thanks, first, for responding. You’re way ahead of the game in that way. Can’t wait to see what Dowd has to say for herself when she is finally made to respond to her readers.

    I understand that print is going away, probably to disappear around the time Florida sinks under the waves (not that soon, I believe). The Times has at least 20 million unique visits a month, and I doubt that would drop substantially if it charged around $50 a year for access. Perhaps a second, lower, price point would be good for students and seniors which could cancel most of that slippage. Even the Times thinks that is doable, since that range is proposed in a survey now making the rounds.

    Any hint of a level of reporting that is accessible only to the well-off puts the Times in league with the WSJ, and is against the principles that make the Times what it is. There is a point at which honorable people would feel compelled to sacrifice THEIR principles to find that content for free. There are, for instance, relatively easy ways to get WSJ content for free, not that I want to.

    I agree that the ability to download sections fits the “niche” structure you propose, but it MUST be in addition to complete access to all other content with a paid subscription. The tradeoff for losing print subscribers is the VAST increase in online subscribers, a business model that really seems able, once the public understands the economics of the situation, to support a great enterprise in the style to which it has become accustomed.

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Casey et al:
    Some general ruminations on the numbers:

    First, NYTimes.com uniques are running at about 15 million, according to Compete.com, or 11 million, per Quantcast. Take your pick, but it’s not 20 million, although it was closer to that level back in February.

    Quantcast says 1 percent of those are “addicts” and 30 percent are “regulars”. The rest are passers-by who are unlikely prospects for any kind of paid service.

    With the kind of survey the Times is doing, they might get 10 percent of the “addicts” and “regulars” to say they might buy at Silver, and some negligible percentage at Gold. Reality should temper that down to a 3 percent assumption, which means (using the Quantcast count) 330,000 members or $16.5 million per year. Maybe Gold contributes another $1 million, and after expenses the Times adds $15 million, or 10 percent, to its bottom line.

    Now suppose, instead, it takes the niche approach, starting with the biggest niche there is: sports. Isn’t it likely that TimesSports could attract 330,000 members paying $50? Start by putting on the paid side most of the deep sports stats the Times has online. If the Times ends up keeping the Boston Globe, or partnering with a spun-off Globe, deeper coverage of the RedSox-Yankees rivalry, alone, could generate that kind of interest. (The joke when the Times bought the Globe for $1.3 billion was “Helluva price to pay for a sports department.”) The global combined populations of Red Sox and Yankee Nations is at least 100 million. (Yes, I know this has been tried with mixed results, but The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Packers Insider is a successful model to emulate here.)

    My point is that one niche can generate the same revenue as Silver and Gold might be expected to yield. And sure, to some of the commenters, if you subscribe to one niche, the next one should come cheaper.

  • Casey Chapple

    Martin… It’s all gut, and no real data, but I think your numbers are (WAY) on the low side. Quantcast admits the Times has not been “quantified” and that its numbers are “rough estimates.” Also, their estimated “uniques” consist only of US visits, ignoring global numbers. On April 29, Scott Heekin-Canedy, president and general manager of the Times, said that the Times web audience is “21 million unique visitors and 621 million page views per month and growing.

    How Quantcast arrived at the breakdown of “addicts” and others is a real mystery. Similarly I wonder how you came to your assumptions about the percentages of visitors who would decide to pay for a membership. If you are using the Times experience with their abandoned fee-for-editorials” attempt some time ago, I doubt very much those data have anything at all to do with the situation today, now that some newspapers have actually bitten the dust and just about everyone has felt the pinch of the financial fiasco and current economic slump. We understand far better now how quickly some large institutions can disappear over night, creating a whole new unknown to complicate any estimates of the effect of a big change in a business plan today.

    If your estimates are based on other web site experimentation with pay-for-content schemes, it should be remembered that the Times is almost completely unique in it size, coverage, and the regard in which it is held world-wide. It will be fun to watch the plan, whatever it is, work itself out. I think the Times will come out fine, if they keep their product as available as possible to all strata of society.

    There is one exception: if the Times wants to put its sports reporting behind a wall of kryptonite that only the super-rich can access, I guess that would be okay.

  • leonard schneide

    There is very little the NYT offers that cannot be found online elsewhere, even if you have to use a search engine.

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