I’m A New York Times Subscriber, So Where’s My Tote Bag?

The New York Times released its latest earnings report earlier this week, spurring another round of discussion about the newspaper’s paywall, which was launched near the beginning of last year. The consensus: Early signs are positive, but it’s not doing well enough to offset plummeting print ad revenue.

What’s the solution? Well, if you listen to a number of online media pundits, it’s all about bringing more value to the most devoted members of The Times’ readership. Over at GigaOm, Matthew Ingram suggests, “Regular readers should get more than just a sales rep hitting them up for a monthly payment — the fact that they are a devoted fan should entitle them to earn rewards, whether it’s money off their subscription for interacting with the paper, or offers that others don’t get.” It’s a point he’s made before, as has Clay Shirky, who wrote that “this may be the year where we see how papers figure out how to reward the people most committed to their long-term survival.”

I’m a happy New York Times subscriber, but I have to say: I don’t think The Times is doing a good job on this front, or much of a job at all. It’s odd, because NYTimes.com general manager Denise Warren appeared on NPR’s Talk of the Nation with Shirky, and she seemed largely on-board with his ideas:

I think Clay has outlined it exactly right. I mean, this model was not designed to get everybody who comes to our website to pay. Clay is absolutely right in terms of the distribution of the audience, and I think this is true for most publishers. The vast majority of people come and turn one article or two articles.

But there is a very loyal minority of folks who told us through rounds and rounds of research that they value the New York Times content, they’d be willing to pay to support the New York Times content. And so the key for us in this model was threading that needle – remaining open to the Web, enabling those who are coming to us for that one article or two article, et cetera, to still enjoy the content but at the same time enable those who are very loyal to have some kind of a different experience with us.

Warren goes on to outline some of the advantages of a Times digital subscription — not just access to unlimited articles (20 per month is the limit for non-paying readers, though there are lots of ways around it), but also to the Times smartphone and tablet apps, as well as bonus apps like Politics and Collections, and email newsletters giving behind-the-scenes portraits of the newsroom. Now, as someone who’s constantly reading The Times on both his laptop and his iPhone, I’m happy to fork over $15 a month isn’t a bad price for those features, but I also feel like they’re a missed opportunity.

As Shirky puts it, newspapers “must also appeal to its readers’ non-financial and non-transactional motivations: loyalty, gratitude, dedication to the mission, a sense of identification with the paper, an urge to preserve it as an institution rather than a business.” Those seem to be some of the main reasons people subscribed, but The Times isn’t doing much to encourage that feeling.

The closest it comes is through its newsletters, but those newsletters also have the clearest shortcomings. I’ve been a Times subscriber since the program started in March, and in that time, I’ve received a total nine newsletters. And of those, five are “Innovations” emails, which function as ads for new features on The Times website — useful, maybe, but not particularly loyalty-inspiring. Emails offering “The Story Behind The Story” are better (though a still a little impersonal for my taste), but they show up about once every two months.

Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan makes an interesting comment about this during his interview with Shirky and Warren: He notes that NPR has convinced one in six listeners to donate, while The Times has only convinced one in a hundred to subscribe. He later says, “If you get into the tote bag business, we’re going to have a problem.”

Here’s the thing about those tote bags — they’re nice, but as NPR broadcasters constantly remind listeners, they’re not the real reason to donate. To pick an example from my local NPR station, is there anyone who would pay $144 just because it’s a great deal on a KQED hoodie? (I hope not.) They make the donation because they love KQED, and the hoodie is a sign of their dedication.

Compare that to The Times digital subscription page and pricing model, which are all about functionality — there are three pricing levels, and they reflect different levels of mobile access. That approach has its limitations — from a functional equivalent, it can be hard to justify the price, especially when you take into account the easiness of circumventing the paywall and the low price of other online services. (As a friend pointed out, it’s $15 a month for the cheapest plan, which is more than a basic Netflix subscription.)

To keep The Times in business, however, I’m happy to pay $15 a month, and I’d probably be fine paying significantly more. I don’t think the basic subscription price should change (if anything, it seems a little high), but I suspect the paper could also offer higher price points without providing a dramatic improvement in the product. It just needs rewards that make subscribers feel loyal to The Times, and maybe a little special — the digital equivalent of a tote bag.