My days of using the New York Times to rebut free content supporters may be coming to an end. Today New York Magazine has an article detailing the Times’ plan to charge customers. I wanted to address some amusing comments by NY Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman that appeared in that article.
In this quote he’s addressing TimesSelect which was the NY Times’ original attempt at a pay wall (they discontinued it in 2007)…
“As we got into it, it was clear to me I was getting cut off from a lot of my readers in India and China where 50 dollars per year would be equal to a quarter of college tuition,” Friedman recently told me by phone. “What was coming to me anecdotally from my travels was the five worst words that as a columnist you ever want to hear: ‘I used to read you before you went behind the wall.’”
Friedman is now “pro some kind of pay model,” he says. “My own feeling is, we have to do anything we can to raise money,” he told me. “At some point we gotta charge for our product.”
I asked Friedman whether any of the technologists he meets during his globe-trotting had presented any groundbreaking ideas for how to save the Times and journalism. While he’s optimistic about the coming crop of tablets and e-readers, the answer is no. “We’re in a megatransition.
One of the points I desperately try to make on this blog is that technology, while empowering, doesn’t change the basic rules that have always been present in society. In this case that means people purchasing something are willing to pay what they think it’s worth and no more. That was true in the days of Horse and Buggies and it’s true now.
So called “innovations” such as MicroTransactions are just alternate pricing schemes. Basically a nice way of saying the stuff you’re selling is only worth a penny. When I was a kid I used “MicroTransactions” to buy cheap gum balls with flavor that only lasted for half a second.
Which is my point here. The reason Newspapers are having so much trouble profiting from their content is because their content isn’t worth that much. When they tried to charge for it no one paid because people are only willing to pay what they think the content is worth and those people simply weren’t willing to pay for Mr. Friedman’s column.
To prove my point I wanted to look at the most recent NY Times column by Mr. Friedman. It begins…
Frankly, if I had my wish, we would be on our way out of Afghanistan not in, we would be letting Pakistan figure out which Taliban they want to conspire with and which ones they want to fight, we would be letting Israelis and Palestinians figure out on their own how to make peace, we would be taking $100 billion out of the Pentagon budget to make us independent of imported oil — nothing would make us more secure — and we would be reducing the reward for killing or capturing Osama bin Laden to exactly what he’s worth: 10 cents and an autographed picture of Dick Cheney.
So we’re basically dealing in opinion and cheap political attacks. Not out of line for a NY Times Op Ed but no more intelligent than the stuff you’d get from the college guys protesting the war on my local street corner and they’re giving it away for free.
Mr. Friedman goes on…
Am I going isolationist? No, but visiting the greater China region always leaves me envious of the leaders of Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, who surely get to spend more of their time focusing on how to build their nations than my president, whose agenda can be derailed at any moment by a jihadist death cult using exploding underpants.
Now we graduate to flat out ignorance. Anyone even vaguely familiar with either the internal strife in China or the dicey political situation between countries in East Asia knows the leaders of all those countries have plenty on their plates beyond blissful nation building. One last paragraph before I’m done…
Has anyone noticed the most important peace breakthrough on the planet in the last two years? It’s right here: the new calm in the Strait of Taiwan. For decades, this was considered the most dangerous place on earth, with Taiwan and China pointing missiles at each other on hair triggers. Well, over the past two years, China and Taiwan have reached a quiet rapprochement
Again, anyone who thinks 2 years of peace means something has no grasp of history (or Wikipedia apparently). In the end things are not more peaceful now than they have been in times past. China has repeatedly vacillated between peaceful co-existence and threats. They employ each strategically in order to manipulate the political climate in Taiwan to their advantage. But in the end China still thinks of Taiwan as a member providence while 85% of the Taiwanese people think of themselves as a separate country.
So how is it that a NY Times columnist knows less than me, a guy with a $350 a year StratFor subscription?
Because all Friedman has going for him is arrogance. He has no experience in this area. He clearly makes no attempt to verify his facts or engage those who disagree with him. In short, his opinion is worth virtually nothing.
Which returns me to my original point. Mr. Friedman is a talented writer and he’s welcome to his opinion but that doesn’t mean it’s worth a lot to the public at large. That realization tells you more about why newspapers are failing than all the digital ink that’s been devoted to the topic in recent years.
One of the promises of the digital age is a return to meritocracy in the arena of written opinion. I think we’re a long way from that goal but I can’t help but see the fall of newspapers as a sign that we’re still on the right road.
P.S. Mashable has a poll asking whether users will pay. As of this writing 83% say "Probably Not" or "Definately Not" while another 11% aren't sure (answering "Possibly"). I rest my case.