I wonder how many other former New York Times junkies there are out there like me, who used to buy the print edition religiously but who gave it up when the price got too high and also remain indifferent to the Times website.
I just totted up what I’ve spent over the years on the Times weekday print edition, which I used to buy and read daily from 1975, when I arrived in New York and the paper cost 20 cents, to last year, when I stopped buying it at the newsstand and the cost was $2.50. The total is $8,175. That’s a lot of brand loyalty, right? For me, that loyalty hasn’t translated to the web.
I was devoted to the print edition, in a deep way. I liked the ritual of reading the Times on the subway, at the office, at home—which gave me not just ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’ but editorial judgments about the weight and importance of stories conveyed in their layout and positioning. This meta-information was just as valuable to me as the factual matter, and though this element has its analog in the presentation of stories on the Times website, I find the web’s ‘meta-information’ far less articulate than that of the print edition and, moreover, less amenable to surprising discovery—which was a big reason why I liked exploring all that paper territory every day.
Does the Times website offer the equivalent of the ticklingly oblique positioning of that unexpected human interest story on page 8, Section B, bottom right? Does one do anything on media web sites but ‘drill down,’ to use a tired cliché that fails to account for the full dimension of human scanning-and-acting? My reluctant daily look at the Times website now—I can’t very well call it a ritual—is more about what I already think I want to know than what savvy editors think I might need or like to know. To get that larger view of what the people in my sphere think interesting, and why, I look at Facebook and Twitter first, and then my blogs, then Le Monde and the Guardian, then maybe the Times—which has become less an index to reality for me than a supplement to it.
I hasten to add that my abandonment of the Times had nothing to do with the fact or cost of subscription online. I pay happily for subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal and other premium news products—and anyway, it’s still easy to navigate around the firewall that appears after one’s monthly allotment of free stories. But those other media brands are different. It’s perhaps just that my brand loyalty to the Times was built on such a lofty promise, so honorably kept decade after decade, that the brand feels beyond mere commerce to me. It’s sort of un-lofty to be asked $2.50 a day or $70 for twelve weeks of ‘all digital access’ to engage in a daily ritual of cultural citizenship. A free society is built on unfettered access to unadulterated news, so ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ resonates in the brain like a basic precept could have been articulated in the Constitution—and would thus, in an ideal world, be beyond monetisation.
Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world. Good journalism is expensive and profit margins are slim. The Times, this unique media brand, has tinkered and tinkered with its pricing, products, and business model and I keep wondering if there might be, say, a million other consumers out there like me who would pick up the paper again every day if it cost only $1, in some rejiggered Times business model that accounted not only of the brand’s ‘luxury’ side but its ‘staple’ side too.