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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Strange Times

Since I consider The New York Times one of the good sources of film criticism, I am satisfied that it falls within the scope of this page, which tries (but sometimes fails) to focus on movies.

It has been more than a fortnight since the Times instituted a pay wall on its web site. And if I had read the preceding sentence around the time I first began reading the Times, it would have amounted to absolute gibberish to me or anyone else sentient at the time. But times (pun intended) have changed, and we consume our news and information differently now. Compared to web publishing, it is expensive to print things on paper for millions of people and people have gotten used to not having to wait around for news to be printed and delivered on paper in order to read it.

The problem, of course, is that people are accustomed to paying for physical objects like newspapers and magazines, but they have long since come to expect words on their computer screens to appear for free. That was always going to change, and some news sources (main financial ones) have long since (or always) charged for their content. But the Times’s foray into paid web publishing marks a shift because of its prominence among mainstream media. Their competitors can be expected to either follow suit or counter-program in some way.

I have to say, I have enjoyed immensely the era of free news and information. For compulsive readers, news junkies and information addicts, the past several years have been an amazing golden age. And I speak as someone who has in the past willingly paid for the privilege of reading the Times. When I could afford it, I had mail subscriptions posted to the west coast of America. After I moved abroad, I paid to have the paper’s international edition, The International Herald-Tribune, posted to my house—although I stopped when I found I didn’t read them because they were arriving up to a week after the fact. The internet was a boon for someone like me who lives, as they say here, in the back of beyond. I have not hesitated to pay for web content that I value, but until now the Times has not asked—except for a period between 2005 and 2007. And even then they did not charge for news articles or movie reviews but only for columnists on the op-ed pages. I paid them the money, mainly out of support and also for the included access to the paper’s archives and crossword puzzles. But by the end of it, I wouldn’t have done it again. The op-ed pages have become the least interesting part of the paper for me. Former President George W. Bush gets blamed for a lot of things, but one thing that he unquestionably deserves blame for is ruining the New York Times op-ed pages. Something about Bush’s presidency compelled the paper’s columnists to write the same things over and over and they became very tedious. In any event, the paper dropped that pay wall because it found that the revenue it was generating was a pittance next to the ad revenues compromised.

Now, the question arises: shall I take The New York Times up on one of its online subscription plans? As several commentators around the web have already noted, the subscription plans are set out in a very strange way. For non-print subscribers, there are basically two options for unlimited access. Both include access with a web browser. The cheaper one also includes access with the paper’s smartphone app, e.g. on the iPhone. The dearer one includes access with the paper’s tablet app, i.e. on the iPad. In other words, there are two prices for exactly the same content, but readers are expected to pay more for the convenience and comfort of reading it on a nicer device. As I wrote to one of my correspondents, it’s a bit like a print newspaper or magazine charging a higher price to readers who have a more comfortable chair or better reading light at home. Of course, the Times bigwigs would see it differently. What they are actually trying to do is charge rent (at different rates) for their “free” apps.

As many people quickly pointed out, one could easily choose to pay the cheaper price and still enjoy reading the paper on an iPad. One just has to read it with the iPad’s browser instead of the Times’s app. They also pointed out that one could pay even less money and get full access on all platforms by subscribing to (and throwing away) the Sunday print edition of the paper.

The fact is that I tried the Times’s iPad app (did I mention that the Missus gave me an iPad for Christmas? It’s wonderful) and, even though it was designed very nicely, before long I stopped using the NYT app. What I discovered is that the best way to read newspapers and magazines and web pages on a tablet (for me, at least) is the same way I have long been reading them on a computer. Find a good RSS aggregator (I use one called Reeder on the iPad) and use it to organize all your favorite feeds. Many articles (or enough of them) can be read right in the app, and for the ones that can’t you can jump right to the web page in question to read the article in full and in context. In this way, I am controlling what I read rather than an app trying to control what I read. Sure, it takes a bit of work to locate and organize the feeds, so I understand that some people without my geeky bent might want to let a dedicated app guide them.

So paying for a premium for a subscription that works with a newspaper’s iPad app is a non-starter. From articles I had read and email I had received from the Times, I knew not to expect to notice much change to my newspaper reading right away. I knew that after accessing something like 20 web pages, I would be invited to subscribe. So I just continued going about my normal reading routine with the intention of just letting things happen. More than two weeks later, I still have not gotten my invitation. And I am still reading the Times the same as I always have. I’m not quite sure why this is. Maybe, as a longtime registered user of the website, I have some grace period that I am not aware of. Or maybe I haven’t drilled down deep enough into the content enough times to exhaust my free access. (You can get an awful lot of information by simply skimming the headlines and article summaries.) Or maybe this pay wall wasn’t designed in a very smart way. I am aware that that some have called it “porous” because, by design, it allows some readers in for free. Like people who land on pages through searches with some search engines. Or links from Facebook and Twitter. Needless to say, someone quickly set up a Twitter account that does nothing but tweet links to every article the paper publishes. One hears references to four lines of JavaScript out there that bypass the pay wall. My own experience to date makes me suspect that RSS feeds aren’t subject to the barrier either.

This has left me confused. If it is so easy to get NYT content for free, one would feel like a fool to pay for it. In practice, any money submitted no longer qualifies as fee but is, in essence, a donation—kind of like sending money to your local NPR station because you feel guilty. The fact that I have to spend time thinking about these things makes me feel as though I am doing work that the newspaper should be doing. The fact is, I may not be triggering the pay wall because there is a ton of information out there and, in the grand scheme of things, the amount I am getting specifically from the Times has become less significant as a result. (Strangely, as I was typing these words, my invitation for a special introductory subscription offer just landed in my email inbox.)

I will continue to wrestle with this and see if things become clearer. If anybody out there has stopped reading the Times web site out of frugality or out of principle, I would be interested to hear. And if such people exist, there is solace for those who like to read about film. There are plenty of other sites out there (including this one, I hope) which have quality content on movies and continue to be absolutely free of charge. And also free of guilt.

-S.L., 7 April 2011

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