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July 06 2011


Another perk for NYT subscribers: “Share your access”

Are you a New York Times subscriber? Are you related to one? If so, today’s your lucky day: The Times, in an email just sent out to print subscribers, is announcing that subscribers will now be able to share their digital access with a family member of their choosing. Think of it as the Frank Rich Discount, bring-a-plus-one edition. (The Times is also offering the deal to digital-only types who subscribe to the most expensive, $35-every-four-weeks package.)

It’s an interesting move. For one thing, it’s another way for the Times to differentiate its price points, which for digital-only are currently $15 for web and smartphone app, $20 for web and tablet app, or $35 for web, smartphone, and tablet. That $35 top-tier item has always seemed a little high next to its peers, and bringing this sharing mechanism only to those subscribers could give another reason for some to pony up.

But, more interestingly, the move shifts the calculus of the NYT’s porous paywall, for which the locus of subscription has been a single person. In print, a family was able to share the paper among husband and wife, son and daughter — maybe even with a neighbor. Digital subscriptions, with their logic of one-subscription-per-person, reframed that community ethos: When the paper rolled out its pay meter, its core consumer became the individual, not the group.

So while today’s share-a-subscription move may be a way, of course, for the Times to collect more email addresses and other user data, and to build its user base, and to encourage Times subscribers to sync up their print and their digital accounts…it’s a move that also seems aimed at recapturing some of the communal aspects of paper subscription and consumption — just on a digital plane. (I’m sure the Times would love nothing more than to spark a few intra-family squabbles over who gets to share Mom’s digital access.)

And its language announcing the new policy bears that out. As of today, the Times stresses, digital subscribers can share digital access with a family member — not a friend, not a coworker, not an acquaintance, but an actual relative. “Now you can share your All Digital Access with a family member at no additional charge,” the email says. Click on the link included in the email, and you’re sent to a “Share All Digital Access” page that, though fairly sparse, repeats the term “family member” three times.

And in the Shared Access FAQ, the “family member” count jumps to seven.

Which is curious, since the invite page uses a text field that could be filled in with the name and email address of anyone, family or no. (Dear Colin Firth: You don’t know me, and we’re not related. But I’ve got a New York Times Digital Access invite with your name on it…)

And leaving aside the pesky philosophical questions (what is family, really?), what the move also means is that people who are already NYT subscribers, as of today, have been granted one of the more powerful perks of the early adopters: invitations to a fairly exclusive party. (You didn’t have to be on Twitter the day Google+ rolled out to appreciate the sway of the phrase “I’ve got invites.”) Which is a nice thing for the paper’s existing subscribers — and a nice incentive for more people to join their ranks.

March 25 2011


This Week in Review: The New York Times’ fees and free-riders, and tying community to local data

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Debating the Times’ pricing structure: There was really only one big news story in the media world this week: The New York Times’ paid-content plan, which is live in Canada now and coming to everyone else on Monday. I divided the issue into two sections — the first on general commentary on the plan, and the second specifically about efforts to get around the paywall.

We learned a bit more about the Times’ thinking behind the plan, with a story in the Times about the road from its last paid-content system, TimesSelect, to this one, and an All Things Digital interview with Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, in which he said, among other things, that the Times didn’t consider print prices when setting their online price levels. Former Times designer Khoi Vinh also looked at the last couple of years, lamenting the lost opportunity for innovation and the legacy of TimesSelect.

There were a couple pieces written supporting the Times’ proposal: Former CBS digital head Larry Kramer said he’d be more likely to pay for the Times than for the tablet publication The Daily, even though it’s far more expensive. The reason? The Times’ content has consistently proven to be valuable over the years. (Tech blogger John Gruber also said the Times’ content is much more valuable than The Daily’s, but wondered if it was really worth more than five times more money.) Nate Silver of Times blog FiveThirtyEight used some data to argue for the Times’ value.

The Times’ own David Carr offered the most full-throated defense of the pay plan, arguing that most of the objection to it is based on the “theology” of open networks and the free flow of information, rather than the practical concerns involved with running a news organization. Reuters’ Felix Salmon countered that the Times has its own theology — that news orgs should charge for content because they can, and that it will ensure their success. Later, though, Salmon ran a few numbers and posited that the paywall could be a success if everything breaks right.

There were more objections voiced, too: Both Mathew Ingram of GigaOM and former newspaper journalist Janet Coats both called it backward-looking, with Ingram saying it “seems fundamentally reactionary, and displays a disappointing lack of imagination.” TechDirt’s Mike Masnick ripped the idea that people might have felt guilty about getting the Times for free online.

One of the biggest complaints revolved around the Times’ pricing system itself, which French media analyst Frederic Filloux described as “expensive, utterly complicated, disconnected from the reality and designed to be bypassed.” Others, including Ken Doctor, venture capitalist Jean-Louis Gassee, and John Gruber, made similar points about the proposal’s complexity, and Michael DeGusta said the prices are just too high. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow disagreed about the plan structure, arguing that it’s well-designed as an attack on Apple’s mobile paid-content dominance.

Are paywall loopholes a bug or feature?: Of course, any barrier online is also a giant, flashing invitation to get around said barrier, and someplace as influential as the Times was not going to be an exception. Several ways to bypass the Times’ pay system popped up in the last week: There was @FreeNYT, the Twitter account that will aggregate Times content shared on Twitter, and NYTClean, a browser bookmarklet that strips the Times’ paywall coding, allowing you to read the Times just like normal. The Lab’s Josh Benton noted how easy the hack was to come up with (four lines of code!) and speculated that the Times might actually want nerds to game their system, “because they (a) are unlikely to pay, (b) generate ad revenue, and (c) are more likely to share your content than most.”

So how has the Times responded to all this? A bit schizophrenically. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said the people who would find ways around the system would be “mostly high-school kids and people who are out of work.” And the Times asked Twitter to shut down the aggregating Twitter accounts (for a trademark violation) and extended its limit on daily search-engine referrals beyond Google. But the Times is also widening some pathways of its own, making it so you can’t hit the wall directly from a blog link, and offering 200,000 regular readers free online access for the rest of the year through an advertiser.

Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan mocked the Times’ behavior toward wall-jumpers as an effort to have its paid-content cake and eat it too: “This wall is designed, as best I can tell, only to be a barrier to your most loyal — and most stupid — readers.” Slate’s Jack Shafer made a similar argument to Benton’s, pointing out that online free-riders aren’t keeping paying customers from reading the Times (like, say, someone who steals a paper edition, as Sulzberger analogized) and are actually help the paper continue its influence and reach.

Adding community to local data: EveryBlock, a three-year-old site owned by MSNBC.com that specializes in hyperlocal news data, unveiled its first major redesign this week, which includes a shift in focus toward community and location-based conversation, rather than just data. All place pages now allow users to post messages to those nearby, using what founder Adrian Holovaty called the “geo graph,” rather than the “social graph.” Mashable added a few valuable details (notably, the site will bring in revenue from location-based Groupon displays and Google ads).

Holovaty answered a lot of questions about the redesign in a Poynter chat, saying that the site’s mission has changed from making people informed about their area as an end in itself to facilitating communication between neighbors in order to improve their communities. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram applauded the shift in thinking, arguing that the main value in local news sites is in the people they connect, not in the data they collect. At 10,000 Words, Jessica Roy noted that the change was a signal that hyperlocal sites should focus not just on the online realm, but on fostering offline connections as well.

NPR on the defense: Two weeks on, the hidden-camera attack on NPR continues to keep it in the middle of the news conversation. Following last week’s vote by the House to cut off NPR’s limited federal funding, several media folks made cases to keep NPR’s federal funding alive, including the Washington Post’s Len Downie and Robert Kaiser and Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark. NPR host Steve Inskeep argued that NPR’s most important work has nothing to do with any liberal/conservative bias. “Think again of my colleagues in Libya, going forward to bear witness amid exploding shells. Is that liberal or conservative?” he asked.

Elsewhere, James O’Keefe, the producer of the gotcha video, and Bob Garfield of NPR’s On The Media had it out on the air, and DailyFinance gave a picture of NPR’s financial situation. Howard Kurtz of Newsweek and The Daily Beast wrote that some NPR journalists think that NPR management’s passive, reactionary defense of their organization is damaging it almost as much as the attacks themselves.

Reading roundup: Not too busy of a week in the media world outside of Timesmania. A few things to take note of:

— A quick news item: Journalism Online, Steve Brill’s initiative to help media companies charge for their content online, is being snatched up by the Fortune 500 printer RR Donnelley, reportedly for at least $35 million. PaidContent broke the story, and Ken Doctor wrote about the unexpected difficulties the startup encountered.

— At the New York Review of Books, Steve Coll wrote a thoughtful piece on the competing claims regarding technology’s role in social change.

— For the stat nerds: The Lab’s Josh Benton looked at the latest of the continual stream of depressing graphs flowing from the newspaper industry, and Peter Kafka of All Things Digital analyzed the source of traffic for some major sites across the web, comparing the influence of Facebook and Google.

— For the academic nerds: Here at the Lab, USC Ph.D. candidate Nikki Usher talked to media sociology rock star Herbert Gans about targeted and multiperspectival news, and Michigan Ph.D. candidates William Youmans and Katie Brown shared a fascinating study about Al Jazeera and bias perception.

February 24 2010


Book Publishers Welcome Apple Pricing, Mixed on iPad Features

In the aftermath of Apple's January announcement of the iPad, people dished on the iPad name and pundits debated whether a tablet that didn't have a camera, multitasking, or Flash support could compete. But book publishers zeroed in on a different set of questions.

These included how the iPad's iBooks app and accompanying bookstore might shake up e-book pricing and the competitive landscape; whether the iPad launch will give e-books the boost they need to break into the mainstream; and how the features of the iPad's iBooks reader stack up against expectations.

I spoke with several e-book and book publishing pros after Apple's announcement to get their impressions of what they saw and their thoughts on what the iPad might mean to electronic book publishing.

Many in the industry are excited to welcome a new big e-book retailer to the market. There's little question that Amazon and its Kindle have dominated the scene, with more than 3 million units sold so far.

Angela James, executive editor, Carina Press

"The Kindle sells books," said Angela James, executive editor of Carina Press, Harlequin's new digital-first imprint. "I've seen the royalty statements and the digital units move."

But while there is appreciation for what Amazon has done to launch the e-book market, there are also concerns and some complaints. Many publishers hope the iPad will shake up the field. This desire for change was borne out just two days after the iPad announcement, when Amazon and Macmillan engaged in a brief, wild, and unusually public test of wills. The backstory of this dust-up highlights some of the key factors retailers and publishers are wrestling with.

Macmillan vs. Amazon

Shortly after Apple's announcement, Macmillan's books disappeared from Amazon.com, aside from links to sales by third-party booksellers. The next day, John Sargeant, Macmillan's CEO, placed an ad in Publisher's Lunch that gave the Macmillan side of the story.

At the core of the dispute was Amazon's desire to keep prices for e-books low versus some publishers' desire to nudge prices up and also regain some control over how consumers perceive the value of e-book titles.

Amazon's Kindle store sells most e-books for $9.99 -- a heck of a deal for titles that are often priced at between $25 and $30 in hardcover. Amazon has kept prices low in part by using an unusual model that often ends up paying publishers more than the Amazon sale price.

Here, in rough terms, is how it works: Publishers set a "Digital List Price" (DLP) for their titles -- typically at or close to the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) for the print edition. Amazon then pays the publisher a percentage of that price for each Kindle e-book sold rather than a percentage of the actual sale price. So if a book has a $30 DLP and Amazon pays the publisher 50 percent, the publisher's payment would be $15 per sale, even though Amazon is only getting $9.99 from its customer.

This seems like a sweet deal for publishers. But not all publishers are comfortable with what this approach might mean over the long term. Some are concerned that $9.99 is just too low. They fear readers will get used to that price and Amazon will eventually pull back on its subsidies, leaving print books devalued and publishers' e-book margins slashed.

At the iPad announcement, Apple had already lined up five participating publishing houses, including Macmillan. While the exact terms they'll receive isn't public, it's generally expected that the arrangement follow "the agency model" -- the same terms Apple uses for sales in its App Store. In the agency model, publishers are free to set their own prices and Apple takes 30 percent from each sale.

Let's say the publisher sells the e-book version of a $30 hardcover for $14.99. After Apple's cut, the publisher would receive a little over $10 per unit sold, which is roughly 70 percent of $14.99. This is around two-thirds of what they might have received from Amazon.

You rarely see a company fighting to receive less money per sale, or retailers insisting they pay more per sale. But here's how the Macmillan ad explained what they feel is at stake:

The agency model would allow Amazon to make more money selling our books, not less. We would make less money in our dealings with Amazon under the new model. Our disagreement is not about short-term profitability but rather about the long-term viability and stability of the digital book market.

Shortly after pulling Macmillan's titles, Amazon capitulated and released their clearly irritated side of the story. Over the next week, two other publishers -- HarperCollins and Hachette Book Group -- indicated that they'd also be pushing for Amazon to switch them to the agency model. And it's expected that many more publishers will follow.

One result of all this could be additional retailers jumping into the fray. Hadrien Gardeur, co-founder and CEO of Feedbooks.com was optimistic about how that might play out.

"It seems as though we may be moving from a world where retailers compete on prices to a world where the publisher will fix the price, all the different retailers will have the same price, and it will be up to the publisher to innovate and try different prices and see what will work best," Gardeur said. "If we have a fixed-price model, we'll likely get much better innovation and more retailers. We can really create an ecosystem with this kind of model, where with the other model it was very hard for smaller retailers to compete."

While there is some concern in the industry that this approach could lead to higher e-book prices and slowed e-book adoption, Gardeur was confident that competition would quickly bring prices back down again.

Looking for a Breakthrough

In addition to more retail competition, the industry is hopeful that Apple's entry will help grow the e-book market. While Kindle sales have shown some of the promise of e-books, Peter Balis, director of digital content sales for John Wiley & Sons, said e-books currently represent roughly 1 percent of most publishers' revenue.

"Apple has an incredible track record of late of converting consumers to digital adoption," Balis said, citing the iPod. "If anybody has the power to follow up on the great work that Amazon has already done to create the tipping point, it's Apple."

Roger Stewart, editorial director of McGraw-Hill Professional, said the key to the iPad's success as a reader may lie in the fact that it's a multi-function device.

Roger Stewart, editorial director, McGraw-Hill Professional

"The reason publishers have long believed the iPad would have the potential to be a game changer is not because it was designed to be an e-book reader," he said. "It's a game changer because it does everything else well and, by the way, it also happens to be a great e-book reader. Most people are reluctant to pay $300 for an e-book reader, but if the reader is just part of the device that you bought for all those other reasons the barrier goes away."

Apple also brings with it a trusted retail presence -- one of the very few that can compare to Amazon's. And the design of the iBooks reader, which hews closely to the look of a print book, appears well-positioned to bring new readers to the e-book market. The simplicity of the iPad may make it effective at helping publishers reach mass market readers who have yet to make the leap to digital books, according to Gardeur.

Andrew Savikas, VP of digital initiatives at O'Reilly Media, wondered whether, by focusing on the iPad, publishers weren't overlooking the larger opportunity, including a well-established platform a base of more than 50 million potential customers who use iPhones and iPod Touches.

"Most of what the publishers seem to be looking for in the iPad...is a large scale market for digital books with a platform that provides the opportunities for rich media and has reasonably attractive payment terms, including the ability for publishers to set their own price," he said. "All of that has actually already been part of [Apple's] existing App Store really since it launched." After we spoke, O'Reilly announced that they've sold 100,000 e-books to date through the App Store.

For Savikas, the development of the mobile web as a platform for readers has the potential to be the larger trend, with the iPad representing one of many devices that will make this possible.

Savikas said the iPod Touch and iPhone are creating "a new, larger market that judges the quality of the product based on very different attributes. They don't care about the quality of paper or the smell of the book. What they care about is convenience -- the fact that it's just a part of a device that's already a huge part of their daily life, the fact that it's a device that's connected to the web and to all the other things that they use on a regular basis."

First Impressions of the iPad

These predictions aside, many publishing folks were only modestly impressed with what they saw of iBooks in the Apple demo. Feedbooks' Gardeur, for example, felt that Apple had tried too hard to create a look and feel that evoked traditional books.

"Always displaying a bookshelf or replicating page turns, for example, can get annoying after a while, and I don't think it's really necessary," he said.

He was also disappointed by his first glimpse at the iBook's typesetting. "There's not even hyphenation on the page," he said. "If you're designing a reading system I think it's much better to offer optimized typesetting and really create something that's beautiful and easy to read rather than trying to replicate pages in a real book."

Although most readers don't think in terms of kerning and leading, Gardeur's concern was that when they start reading, they'll be able to tell that something's wrong, even if they're not sure why.

Mike Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, was impressed by the iPad's hardware, but disappointed by its software.

"I think that this is an evolutionary step, not a revolutionary step," he said offering a list of features he was sorry not to see, including highlighting text, annotating, advanced search, and social media tools built into the reading experience.

"Really, all they've done is replicate the book experience on a digital device," he said. "It's begging to go so much further."

One of the most obvious differences between the iPad and the Kindle is their screens. The Kindle features a monochrome display that uses E-Ink. The iPad uses a backlit full-color display that has publishers envisioning all sorts of possibilities for adding vibrant visuals. While this approach looks impressive, particularly in a demo, no one outside of Apple knows how well it will wear over time and whether reading The Brother's Karamazov on your iPad might turn out to be a lovely but ultimately eye-aching experience.

However the iPad reader performs, it's certain to be improved over time, and Amazon and other competitors are expected to raise their games as well.

"It's a time of huge upheaval for publishing and a time of great innovation for devices," said Carina's James. "It's an exciting time to be both a reader and a publisher, on the cusp of discovering what digital books can do. Even though they've been around for decades, they're still in their infancy."

Dan Brodnitz is a writer and content strategist. He is a past publisher at Sybex, John Wiley & Sons, and O'Reilly Media. He interviews working artists about their creative process at about-creativity.com.

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November 10 2009


Research: news execs still think they have a monopoly

Statistics from the American Press Institute paint a strong picture of the disconnect between news executives and readers that covers

  • how much content is valued by execs and readers,

  • how easy the two camps think it is to find alternative sources of news; and

  • where readers would go if the website was turned off. That last question shows the biggest disconnect,

As reproduced below, an incredible 75% news execs think switching off their websites will drive people to their newspapers. Readers, however, are saying they would go to another local website, with other prominent alternatives including regional and national websites, TV and radio (note that news execs also feel that ‘local media sites’ will benefit but users disagree):

Alternative Likely to be Selected if Local Newspaper Web Site No Longer Available (% of Respondents)

News Provider

Provider Perception

Reader Perception

Your print newspaper



Other local media sites






Other local Web sites






Regional/National sites



Other newspaper






Don’t know



Source: American Press Institute, November 2009

Meanwhile, only 9% of news executives think it would be “very easy” for users to find replacement for the online content their news websites are currently providing. That figure rises to 19% for users themselves, and 52% think it would be “very” or “somewhat” easy (only 31% of news providers share that view).

In case it wasn’t clear from the above, the research looks at the pricing of paywalls and suggests that news executives are making strategic decisions based on a lack of knowledge of the market they’re operating in:

“Current prices for online subscriptions strongly suggest that “convenience” pricing is generally in play, not tied to rigorous price analysis or research into what people are willing to pay. Respondents report a wide range of online subscription charges (from $1 to $27.50 a month), yet they report surprisingly uniform levels of uptake on subscriptions, typically 1% to 3% of print circulation, regardless of price.”

[Posted with iBlogger from my iPod touch]

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