a, Opinion

The Times, It Is A-Changin’

When The New York Times announced a couple of weeks ago that it would begin charging readers to access more than 20 stories per month on its website, it didn’t take long for those who knew I was an obsessive reader to start making jokes.

Within hours of the announcement, my friend Shannon mentioned the limit in a post on my Facebook wall. “How long will that last you,” she teased, “eight minutes?”

In reality, I survived for a surprisingly long time. The Times’s payment scheme—which launched on March 17 in Canada and yesterday in the United States—is riddled with holes, most of which seem to be intentional. Stories accessed through Facebook and Twitter, for instance, remain free of charge, as well as some breaking news on the site’s main page.

In spite of the holes, however, I exhausted my allotment of free stories within a few days. Other McGill students, I expect, will last considerably longer, if they hit the wall at all. Whether you keep nytimes.com as your homepage or glance at a few blogs from time to time, though, the Times may be the source of more of your news than you think.

Last week, Nate Silver set out to prove this. Writing on FiveThirtyEight, a blog about polling and statistics hosted on The Times’s website, Silver devised a simple experiment designed to measure the amount of original reporting carried out by different news outlets.

First, Silver compiled a list of 260 prominent newspapers, magazines, and blogs published in English from around the world. Then he “tracked the number of times that the publication’s name has appeared in Google News and Google Blog Search over the past month, followed by the word ‘reported.'” For CNN, for instance, Silver searched the phrase “CNN reported.”

This is obviously a rough methodology for measuring a news outlet’s worth. As Silver notes in his post, many insightful stories might not necessarily be cited by other reporters. (The Atlantic and The New Yorker, for instance, fared poorly in Silver’s study, despite producing a good deal of thought-provoking reporting.) But as a rough measure, it’s pretty useful.

Silver found that eight news outlets—The Associated Press, The New York Times, Thompson Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, the BBC, Agence France Presse, and CNN—accounted for more than half of all original reporting cited online, according to his methodology.

Taken in this context, The Times decision to charge readers for its online content makes a bit more sense. Of the eight news organizations that do the most original reporting—an expensive, often risky endeavour—none operate on the same business model as The Times.

Four of the outlets are wire services, which make money by selling their content to other news organizations, and two are television stations. (One of them, the BBC, is also partially supported by the British government.) The Wall Street Journal, the other newspaper on the list, already charges for access to its online content.

As newspapers’ print advertising revenues and circulation numbers continue to fall, America’s largest newspapers may face a choice. They can either cut back on original reporting, thereby shuttering foreign bureaus and filling their pages with wire reports, or they can risk trying to get online readers to pay for some of their stories.

The Times’s new payment model is far from perfect. The pricing scheme, in particular, which charges different amounts based on whether you want access from your iPad, your smartphone, or both, doesn’t make much sense to me.

But I’m hoping that The Times is lurching, however slowly, toward a new business model that will enable the paper to keep producing the huge volume of original reporting that it does today. The Web would be much poorer without it.

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