Now that the NYT isn’t completely free

For years, the New York Times has been my homepage. A quick click on the Internet Explorer “E” or Firefox little fox brings me face to face with “all the news that’s fit to print,” as they say.

Now, I’ll still be able to see all the news that’s fit to print—but I won’t be able to read it all.

That’s because this past Monday, the New York Times launched a new digital subscription package, whereby Times readers who usually get their news via the internet, smart phones, or other technology, will have to start paying for a portion of the articles they read.

In some ways, this only makes sense. After all, I don’t expect to be able to read the newspaper in print copy for free every day. If I want that pleasure, I purchase a home delivery subscription, or pick up the newspaper on the stands the day I’m interested in reading it.

The Times’ new plan seems more than fair when considered in that light. It will allow readers to access 20 articles a month online for free. That’s the equivalent of the number of news articles I might read casually if I head into Barnes & Noble or another book store and pick up copy of a paper and try to read an article or two in the newspapers and magazines sections without actually paying for it and taking it home. If that’s permissable, then the 20 free articles a month seems roughly equivalent.

On the plus side, if you see a link on Facebook or another social networking site which directs you to a Times article, you can always read it—whether or not you’ve reached your 20-a-month limit. If you search Google, or another search engine, for a Times article, you’ll also be able to read that, too, though there is a daily (unspecified) limit as to how many articles you’ll be permitted to access per day via search engines.

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of the Times, said in an open letter to readers this week that digital subscriptions are an “investment in our future.”

“It will allow us to develop new sources of revenue to strengthen our ability to continue our journalistic mission as well as undertake digital innovations that will enable us to provide you with high-quality journalism on whatever device you choose,” he wrote. He further clarified that people who have the Times delivered to their homes will have full access to all online content.

While I’m selfishly annoyed that my reading of Times articles will be reduced—or will start costing me money—as a writer, I do understand why the Times is beginning to charge for online content.

While there’s certainly a fair amount of debate about piracy, it is true that in the most ideal sense, we’re still paying for songs on iTunes or DVDs from Netflix or other legitimate sources. We may want free music and movies, and we may debate our right to have that, but most artists, actors, directors, put a sticker price on their work.

Why should it be much different in the world of journalism?

In reality, sometimes very little of singers’ incomes comes from selling music or DVDs. Instead it comes from concerts, marketing deals for products, or other gimmicks that keep them in business. And while we might say that a recording artist sells out if he or she begins to appear in ads for different companies, we would call that a major conflict of interest or ethical breach if journalists did the same.

Of course, there is a huge difference here: while many singers go into their careers hoping for fame and fortune, most individual journalists don’t expect to make it rich. I was told again and again that newspapers were dying when I was in college; trying to make a career out of working as a journalist in the 21st century was going to require new skills beyond interviewing, writing, and staying up till all hours to meet deadlines. I was also told many times that even if I had what it took to land a job I loved, I couldn’t expect to make that much money despite my education and experience. Starting pay for journalists at a weekly newspaper hovers around $23,000 a year, according to a University of Georgia survey of journalism and mass communications graduates. For a daily paper, the salary rises to $26,000.

I could argue that the Times should make enough money off advertising to keep its online access free. I could argue that it may seem pointless to set up an elaborate system of monthly fees when inevitably, people will probably find a way to get around them and access the content for free.

But what about the more local papers? While digital subscription fees might not make a huge deal to the Times, it often sets the standard for newspapers across the country. If smaller papers see that the Times is charging, maybe they will, too—and that may save some papers from closing down.

Published last week in the Soutbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press and Villager Newspapers.

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