S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 January 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Past Out

 

[whats the deal with the newlyweds and puppies? ]

To demonstrate what a bargain a

single issue of The New York

Times is, the polychromatic

lifestyle handbook of record

will soon be offering, at US$2.50

per article, all the 1997 news

that's fit to reprint. At that

rate, even a relatively slim

Monday edition would go for

several hundred dollars; in

contrast, the buck you actually

pay for your daily briefcase

ballast seems like an investment

of James Crameresque acumen,

even on those busy days when it

makes its usual doorstep-to

-office-to-recycling-pile

peregrination with minimal

intervention on your part.

 

In practical terms, the

unfortunate side effect of the

Times' ingeniously oblique

promotional strategy - the high

cost of reliving - has little

consequence. As the paper itself

has steadfastly insisted over

the last several years, Web

users are mostly interested in

information that falls outside

its own good gray spectrum:

amateur anatomy studies, DIY

bomb-making tips, quick 'n' easy

amphetamine recipes, etc. That

the Times has no real intention

of marketing its archive to Web

users is just as well; a serious

attempt to use this medium to

substantially increase the price

of information would confirm,

forever, the long-held

suspicion that the Times is

fundamentally incapable of

grasping even the most basic

tenets of new media.

 

The relevant tenet in this case,

of course, is friction-free

commerce. Traditionally, access

to electronic newspaper archives

has been expensive because of

the middlemen who took advantage

of the costs and complexities of

pre-Web distribution: companies

like Lexis-Nexis and Dialog

developed and implemented their

own proprietary delivery

systems, consolidated licensed

content from a variety of

sources who didn't want to bear

such development costs

themselves, then charged premium

prices for their pioneer

efforts. Now that the Web

exists, however, publishers can

make their archives directly

accessible to users at a much

lower cost than was previously

possible. In theory, it's a

development that benefits both

publishers and users: each

should get a cut of that part of

the transaction that used to

comprise the middleman's

profits.

 

[out of four weddings that ive attended in the last year or so all the newlyweds have gotten a new puppy]

So how is it that publishers like

the Times are charging $2.50 per

article, a fee that undoubtedly

boosts its profits far more than

it reduces users' costs?

Ultimately, the rationale for

this kind of pricing is rooted

in the fairly unconvincing

concept of relatively restrained

greed: compared to the least

expensive Lexis-Nexis account -

a monthly flat rate subscription

for the home office user that

goes for $174 - five or six

articles a month at $2.50 per

article seems like a bargain.

 

But for those potential

info-consumers who don't count

themselves amongst Lexis-Nexis'

1.3 million subscribers, it's a

price that proves somewhat

baffling: Why should an article

whose primary expenses (i.e.,

reporting, writing, and editing)

were covered by its initial sale

suddenly cost several hundred

times more than it first did,

simply because it's no longer

timely? Or to put it in more

practical terms: How come it

costs as much to read last

year's movie reviews as it does

to rent last year's movies?

 

Part of the reason is that the

Web, as is its wont, hasn't

exactly lived up to its

promises: Friction still exists

here in the form of third-party

vendors like MediaStream, a

Knight Ridder-owned company that

takes 40 percent of a

newspaper's archive revenue,

with a minimum of 40 cents per

article. Another factor,

according to well-scheming

industry types, is credit-card

processing fees: If it costs 25

cents to process a transaction,

they poor-mouth, per-article

charges have to be sufficiently

high to cover that cost. The

credibility gap here, of course,

is large enough for several

tubby publishing barons to

squeeze into: No newspaper or

third-party vendor we know of

actually bills you for each

transaction. Instead, they track

how many articles you download

during a given period, then bill

you once for them all.

 

While phantom costs like

credit-card processing are

frequently bandied about,

information about actual costs

is much less available. One

thing's for sure, though:

whatever those costs might be,

they have remarkably little

impact on current per-article

prices. Indeed, while The Boston

Globe even tops the Times with

its whopping $2.95 per article

fee, the San Francisco Chronicle

and the San Francisco Examiner,

perhaps more familiar with the

financial habits of Web users

because of their close proximity

to several online publishing

pioneers, offer their archives

for free.

 

[among my friends, i now can add a black lab, a mutt, a egyptian pharoah hound and a chow-black lab cross]

"Free," of course, is the price

point that online publishers

have been gamely trying to

transcend for the last several

years now. With Michael Kinsley

threatening to impose

subscription fees once again

(maybe there's a Justice

Department compromise here

somewhere - no IE bundled with

Windows 95 but mandatory

subscriptions to Slate), and

Salon promising "special

serialized content" for members

only (does this mean the

cliterati will finally deliver

the way-nude media they've been

click-teasing us with?), isn't it

a step back to give away one of

the few online publishing

services Web users have shown a

willingness to pay for? Most

publishers currently share this

perspective: A few mercenary

myopics are even boasting about

the successful price increases

they've already pulled off in

this realm, discontinuing

inexpensive monthly

subscriptions in favor of pricey

per-article fees - with no

subsequent drop in usage.

 

But all this really means is

that a small percentage of the

small, price-indifferent group

of people who've always accessed

online archives - journalists,

attorneys, and others with a

compelling professional need for

information - are forsaking

third-party vendors for direct

access through publishers. In

other words, newspaper

publishers have completely

failed to capitalize on the huge

new audience of potential

info-consumers that the Web has

created. While Yahoo, Excite,

and other search engines and

directories have amassed

fortunes building interfaces to

some of the most useless,

inaccurate information that

exists on the planet, newspapers

like the Times and the Post have

pretty much been sitting on

their big, fat, stupid assets.

 

[no new cats, yet.]

Given that publishers have

always been far more focused on

tomorrow's newspaper rather than

yesterday's, their failure to

recognize the new potential of

their archives isn't that

surprising. In the old media

world, after all, reporters

still commonly call their

archive the "morgue" - a figure

of speech that doesn't exactly

evoke notions of a dynamic new

profit center. As a result,

virtually every online newspaper

exhibits the same fundamental

design flaw: The daily edition

of the paper takes precedence

even though it mostly duplicates

what's already available in a

perfectly acceptable wood-pulp

format: The archive, which in

its new online setting could

function like a kind of

geographically specific

encyclopedia, a professionally

researched and written record of

people, places, and events - an

entity, in short, which has no

analog equivalent - exists

mostly as an afterthought. Its

costliness doesn't encourage

browsing; its interface is

designed only for people who

know exactly what they want

anyway.

 

At the moment, Lexis-Nexis

subscribers perform 300,000

searches a day. In comparison,

Yahoo currently serves 65

million page views per day. Not

all of these page views are

equivalent to a Lexis-Nexis

search, of course; many of them

simply deliver additional menus

as users drill down toward their

ultimate destination, and many

of them involve requests for

information (e.g., porn, a

specific company's homepage,

etc.) that a newspaper's archive

would not contain. Nonetheless,

65 million page views per day is

a number that clearly suggests

that a mass market for

information exists - and that

newspapers are doing little to

capitalize on it.

 

[thank god no kids yet.]

But suppose the Times offered

several decades of its archives

online, for free, with a

Yahoo-like content tree to help

guide you through them? Wouldn't

you prefer to read its take on,

say, Martin Scorsese's career

over the years, rather than some

random cinephile's Travis Bickle

impression? At the moment, the

Times sells page views for $22

to $60 per thousand. A million

page views per day, at an

average of $40 per thousand,

would generate $40,000. To equal

that with its current setup, the

newspaper would have to sell

16,000 articles at $2.50 per

article each day. Given that

Knight Ridder's 27 newspapers,

combined, only sell 35,000

articles a month, that figure

seems somewhat unrealistic. So

is "free" too low a price for

the Times to market its

archives? Only if it's not

really that greedy.




courtesy of St. Huck