Just came off the stage at PaidContent 2010, a day-long summit here at The Times Center near Times Square, dedicated to the question of if/how/when people will pay for content. The timing is good -- as I wrote in January, The New York Times is planning to charge for content within a year or so, Hulu is considering a subscription model (not necessarily in place of but, I believe, in addition to its free service), and the eBook pricing dilemmas are causing sleepless nights.
I opened the conference with a brief assertion that fretting over whether people will pay for content is based on a mistaken assumption: that people have ever paid for content in the past. They actually haven't. Instead, people have paid for access to content. But in an analog world, access was gated by physical form factors like vinyl, newsprint, and movie theaters. As a result, the coincidence of form factor and content made us believe that people pay for content.
But people have never paid for content. Even when a daily newspaper was a necessity for the average home, the dime you paid a day (in the 70s) for a newspaper did not cover the print cost, much less the reporting. Instead, it was classified ads and auto dealers who footed most of the bill. And the hours we spent on TV and radio every day through the last half of the last century until the explosion of cable in the 90s, were all free. When cable finally asserted itself, people did not pay per show or even by channel (with the exception of premium movie channels). Instead, they paid for overall access.
A storm has been brewing at The New York Times for a while now. Ever since TimesSelect -- the paid digital version of the Times -- was cancelled back in 2007, the "content wants to be free" crowd has danced around its proverbial grave, singing the equivalent of "ding, dong, paid media is dead."
It's hard to argue against that viewpoint given the reality we're seeing: long-time newspapers closing their print editions entirely (see Seattle Post-Intelligencer), august magazines such as Gourmet shutting their doors, newspaper subscriptions at unprecedented lows, not to mention the power that Google has over the traffic that newspapers and magazines generate. Worse, our consumer surveys show us that 80% of US adults will choose not to pay for online newspaper or magazine content if they can't get it for free (see my colleague Sarah Rotman Epps' post on this for more).
It is amidst this maelstrom that nytimes.com is reportedly considering erecting a new pay wall -- one presumes a shiner, prettier one than the last wall, but a pay wall nonetheless. Read New York mag's take on the situation here. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a bad idea whose time has unfortunately come.