Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 April 2016

Access to National “Print” Journalism in the Digital Age


Introduction
For-profit “link rot”
Free access to headlines and leads
Comparison table
Conclusion
Endnote on Reader-Commenting Policies

Introduction

Over a year ago, I promised an accurate review and comparison of the digital-access and pricing strategies of our national online newspapers. This is it, a bit late but better than never.

At the moment, there are four mainstream, national, online print media. In alphabetical order, they are: Bloomberg.com, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (or WSJ) and the Washington Post. The overall leader in accessibility is Bloomberg.com, whose online newspaper (as distinguished from its detailed financial analysis) is still entirely free in all respects.

But I’m pleased to report that all three once-print-only national newspapers—the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post—have made substantial progress in giving online readers fairly priced and easy access to their work. All now provide free, unrestricted access to headlines and story leads. All try to avoid, in some way, the frustration of pre-subscription-model hyperlinks that no longer work without payment.

Among the “Paywall Three,” the Washington Post and the New York Times, in that order, are the clear occasional-reader favorites. Each offers free access to twenty or ten entire stories or op-eds, respectively, per month. (The Washington Post’s more recent and more detailed subscription FAQ page has no specific number, suggesting that the number twenty is subject to change.) In addition, the New York Times offers a free daily headline-and-lead newsletter, delivered by e-mail.

Yet there is still wide variation in subscription fees for unrestricted access, as well as in the clarity and transparency with which newspapers explain their pricing and access policies. The Washington Post leads in affordable subscription fees, while the New York Times and Washington Post lead in transparency.

For profit “link rot””

In past posts (1 and 2), I complained of two disadvantages of our national online newspapers’ early paid-subscription models for digital access. The first I call “for-profit link rot.”

After the transition to a paid subscription model, previously-created links to articles often became inoperative for nonsubscribers. Links that used to work led to subscription-marketing pages, not to the original articles, even ones that had been free for access when originally published. Or links led to subscription-marketing pages obscuring the original articles.

This phenomenon took “link rot” to a whole new level, not due to technical difficulties or changes in Websites, but for profit. Clueless users encountering a nonfunctioning hyperlink felt as if history had been clawed back from access and locked behind a paywall.

My own problem as a blogger was particularly acute. I had over a decade of blog posts with links to old articles in the three national newspapers that might no longer work for nonsubscribing readers. There was no way I could take the time to find equivalent free articles and replace hundreds of older links.

Now all the Paywall Three appear have solved this problem to one degree or another. At least my limited random testing suggests that old links (from first decade of this century) to old articles now work without pay. (Given my limited testing, I couldn’t be entirely sure that fluid linking access to old stories in the NYT and WashPost reflected anything more than my not having exhausted my allotment of n free pieces a month.) The sole clear exception is for links to the New York Times’ op-ed pieces, including ones by its own editorial board. They remain behind the paywall, apparently no matter how old. (Sadly, the Times’ explanation page, while otherwise good, does not make this point clear.)

Free access to headlines and leads

The second major problem I identified earlier concerned occasional access to news for free, or nearly so. In the old days of news on dead trees, a news-seeker could read major headlines (and usually story leads as well) through the glass windows of newspaper vending machines. If a story sparked enough interest, s/he could buy the whole issue for a dime or a quarter, depending on the era. That vending strategy put important, current news within everyone’s easy economic grasp.

The digital age, I argued, should give occasional readers at least similar access and pricing. Otherwise, the Internet age would provide them no economic benefit. It would only increase mobility while making access more expensive. That would be a good strategy for our Second Gilded Age, but a bad one for democracy.

I’m now pleased to report that all the Paywall Three now offer substantial solutions to this problem. All provide free and unrestricted access to their online “front pages,” which contain major headlines and at least one-sentence story leads. In addition, all main front pages offer apparently free links to the “front pages” of every single section of each newspaper, with headlines and story leads like those on the main front page. If a reader wants more than the Washington Post’s twenty or the New York Times’ ten pieces per month, s/he will have to pay, at least for a trial subscription.

So each national online newspaper now offers far more and more detailed access to news (and opinion) than readers ever could get through the glass windows of mechanical vending machines. A generation after Bill Clinton’s administration released the Internet for general commercial use (in 1996), the average Joe’s or Mary’s free access to news has vastly increased, in both scope and mobility. This is progress.

Comparison table

There is still room for improvement. Pricing, pricing strategies and access rules are difficult to compare and sometimes not as transparent as they ought to be be. The same is true of access rules for past links.

More important, the price of general access is no great bargain. Yearly subscription rates for Web and phone access range from $99 for the Washington Post to $347.88 for the Wall Street Journal. On a weekday-only basis (52 x 5 = 260 issues per year), that translates to between 38 cents and $1.34 per week-daily newspaper. Undoubtedly these prices reflect the loss of newspaper advertising revenue to digital search engines like Google and social media like Facebook and Twitter.

As for transparency, every national newspaper should have clearly stated and scrupulously followed policies with regard to payment (if any) for access to online stories (including opinion pieces) through past links. Rules for paid and free access to current news and opinion ought not be as confusing, or as confusingly presented, as cell-phone plans.

Only the New York Times approaches this ideal now. But it, too, is not perfect. It reports that links from blogs and other online pages will work, while those from search engines like Google won’t work without pay. Fair enough. But it doesn’t make clear that links to op-ed pieces, including those by the Times’ own editorial board, don’t work without payment.

The Washington Post also has an unusual but limited free feature: an entire free six-month trial subscription, followed by another six months for only $1, but only for owners of Kindle Fires—mobile devices offered by Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos’ other company. This “tie-in” raises some interesting antitrust issues but apparently is still in place.

Following is a short table comparing the Paywall Three newspapers’ policies for access, linking and pricing, as best I could determine by reading online disclosures and by doing my own minimal testing as of the date of publication of this post:

Online Access and Pricing Policies of Major For-Pay National Online Newspapers

PolicyNYTWSJWashPost
Focus of coverageEclecticBusiness & FinancePolitics & World Affairs
Free access to main
and section front pages
YesYesYes
Free linking to old stories
(except by search engines)
Yes, except op-edsYesYes
Number of free stories
or op-eds per month
10None20
Free daily newsletter
w/selected headlines, leads
YesNoNo
Trial pricing and period99 cents
for four weeks
$1 per week
for 12 weeks
99 cents for 4 weeks
Basic annual pricing
for online subscription
$195 (Web & phone)
$260 (Web & tablet)
$347.88
(digital only)
$2.50/week or $99/year
(Web & phone)
$3.75/week or $149/year
(Regular plus D.C. news)
Cancellation policyEnd of 4-week billing cycleEnd of 4-week or monthly cycle,
or prorated for yearly (except last month)
End of billing cycle


[Cautionary note: This table does not include student or other special or promotional subscriptions, or special offers that may be made to previous subscribers. The URLs in my browser suggest that all three papers somehow track inquiries. So some day, if not now, they may vary subscription pricing with applicants’ demographics, or even guesstimated incomes, just as airlines now vary fares depending on when you buy. Therefore readers especially concerned about pricing or policies should follow the links and not depend on this table.]

Conclusion

As the foregoing table shows, the adaptation of formerly “dead trees” national newspapers to the online environment is proceeding nicely. Every one of the Paywall Three now provides free access to more headlines and more leads than glass-windowed vending machines ever did. The Washington Post and New York Times offer twenty or ten (respectively) complete stories or op-eds per month for free. All three newspapers also provide at least partial solutions to the problem of past hyperlinks going dead without payment.

But problems and potential problems still remain. I could not find clear and accurate explanations of linking policies for any of the Paywall Three. Bloggers and others want to know this stuff.

The New York Times and Washington Post provide helpful lists of FAQs for digital subscribers. I could not find a similar list for the Wall Street Journal, which apparently relies on live chat. In my experience—with other companies, not the WSJ—live chat is about as useful as telephone queues. Its only salient advantage is having a written record of personalized (if often useless) attention, at least if the vendor offers that option, or if you have enough presence of mind to copy and paste before exiting. It’s hard for me to believe that the questionable customer benefits of online chat justify their additional cost as compared to well-presented FAQs and marketing pages. Isn’t the WSJ supposed to be a business newspaper?

Far more important is the question of future access to online journalism, as the first draft of history. What happens if an online newspaper drastically changes its format or coverage or drops a whole section? Do its archives survive intact, and for free? And how do future readers find out how and when things changed and what to look for when researching earlier months and years?

What happens if one of our privately owned national newspapers goes out of business? Will the Library of Congress acquire its digital archives, perhaps with some statutory payment to its creditors in bankruptcy, and maintain the archives online? Or will the newspaper’s light go dark forever, not only for future news, but for past news back to its founding in centuries past? In another generation, won’t microfilm and microfiche become obsolete?

These are questions for those who preserve our history and culture for future generations, including the Library of Congress. In the meantime, it remains to be seen how more transparent digital-access policies will affect the gathering and transmission of news. Will pricing differences affect online “circulation,” or will news-seekers value coverage, reputation and accuracy more?

Will the high prices of yearly subscriptions lock many subscribers into a single source of news? Will Fox be able to compete with real journalists who offer a dynamic and modern pricing and access model? Will print—the cooler, more rational and more thoughtful news medium—maintain at least rough parity with video, or will cultural distraction, impulsiveness and thoughtlessness increase?

Stay tuned. The Internet’s impact on news and journalism is only just beginning. But this first chapter of the story of print newspapers’ adaptation to the digital age suggests that their early demise, like Mark Twain’s, has been greatly exaggerated.

Endnote on Reader-Commenting Policies. When I promised a deeper and more accurate report on online print journalism, I had hoped to analyze and compare national online newspapers’ policies and procedures regarding unsolicited online commenting by readers. But researching this aspect of editorial policy turned out to be more difficult than researching the pricing of and access to news and solicited opinion.

All four national online newspapers (including Bloomberg.com) do have pages that describe their reader commenting policies. But those pages are mostly legal boilerplate, forbidding such things as spam, threats, bullying, four-letter-words, and other abuse. Some policies also prohibit or discourage repetition, name calling, flaming and blaming. Most, however, omit or are vague about more important things, such as comment-moderating policies and which pieces invite reader comment and which do not.

So I got the general impression that online reader-commenting policies are still works in progress. None of the four national newspapers (including Bloomberg.com) seems ready to commit to stating its entire comment policy clearly and succinctly in writing, let alone to offering any sort of permanence. Bloomberg.com, for example, has eliminated reader comments for all but selected stories and op-eds, but I couldn’t find any explanation of its new rules of selection. Perhaps the farthest advanced is the New York Times, which claims to moderate, but not to edit, all reader comments in an attempt to maintain a high level of discussion.

To judge from the very small sample of commented stories and comments I have read, the NYT’s reader-comment and moderation policy has achieved a much higher level of discussion than my similarly limited perusal of other newspapers’ comments has revealed. (Or maybe the Times just has a higher-quality reader base.) But at what cost? The Washington Post, perhaps because of Jeff Bezos’ ownership, appears to rely on machine intelligence to moderate comments, if only to eliminate obvious vulgarity and abuse. At least my few comments have appeared with a delay long enough for machine intelligence to operate, but too short for human moderation. As a result, the Post’s comments appear to include more of the usual chest-beating and braying one-liners than those of the New York Times.

Allowing reader comments undoubtedly attracts some readers, for the simple reason that all of us like to have our say and tell our stories. Once in a while, a reader’s comment may correct an error in or misimpression from a story, or add an interesting angle, nuance or bit of information. It’s not a bad thing (although relatively rare) when readers can improve the quality of reporting or add useful information without imposing additional marginal cost on the publisher.

Allowing readers to comment also exploits two historically unique and vital features of the Internet as a communications medium: interactivity and many-to-many communications. But allowing reader comments—let alone assuring their quality—also raises obvious issues of resource allocation, namely, how much human and computer resources to devote to keeping comments civilized, civil and relevant, if not also informative and erudite.

My general impression is that all four national online newspapers are still pondering these issues and have made no permanent editorial decisions. They are still weighing the pros and cons and the costs and benefits of various policies and various commenting technology. One or two may even be contemplating acquiring Disqus, the apparently independent commenting-technology provider. Such an acquisition by a single newspaper might raise antirust issues.

On the contrary, some newspapers may be contemplating developing their own online technology to streamline moderation of comments and maintain high quality automatically, as I’ve suggested previously [search for “can also find”]. Bloomberg.com’s limitation of comments based on the type of article hints at this approach. On the other hand, the New York Times—with its general apotheosis of the liberal arts and apparent distrust for science and technology (except on Wall Street)—is in my view unlikely to follow this path. The resulting “John Henry” competition between human minds and intelligently programmed machines in moderating unsolicited online comments might provide an interesting diversion in the history of journalism.

So I’m going to withhold a post on reader-commenting policies until the dust settles a bit more. At least I’ll withhold it until all four national online newspapers take the public more into their confidence and publish more complete descriptions of their reader-commenting policies and technologies, preferably on the digital equivalents of their mastheads. I hope that journalists, not lawyers, will write these descriptions.

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