The Times Cracks the Digital Code

The New York Times has been congratulating itself for signing up the one-millionth paid subscriber to its digital edition, and well it should. In an age when information wants to be free, as Stewart Brand supposedly said, convincing a million people to pay for access to information over the Internet is a big deal.

The folks at the Gray Lady, predictably, attribute NYT.com’s large following to the high-quality journalism provided by its crack reporters around the world. In my view, the Times has succeeded in finding subscribers online for an entirely different reason. Its digital editors, if that’s the proper name for the folks who manage NYT.com, have figured out how to create a product that’s hard to steal.

Content theft is the bane of any information provider’s existence in the digital era. Articles, chapters, even entire books end up on the Internet without authorization, placed there by people who think they are providing a public service. A couple of years ago, I even came upon a French translation of one of my books on the Internet, the work of a university student who had translated it, without permission, because he thought that was a cool thing to do. Similarly, people think nothing of copying music or photos from the Internet without permission from those who wrote the songs, took the pictures, or acquired the rights from the creators. Many  content providers have tried to deal with rampant theft by putting their content behind pay walls, but in general this strategy has not succeeded. In the case of newspapers, many of them have trimmed their staffs to the point that their content just isn’t worth the money they charge, especially when potential subscribers know that any truly important news will appear all over cyberspace within minutes of its publication.

After years of treating its web product as a digital version of its print edition, the Times finally learned that the way to deal with content theft is to publish a multimedia product instead of an online newspaper. While much of the content on NYT.com is plain old news articles, a significant amount is infused with videos, audio clips, photo essays, or dynamic maps and charts. This non-written content is of extremely high quality and well worth seeing or hearing. But what matters from the commercial point of view is that the complete package of these diverse content types embedded in a written article can’t readily be cut and pasted into other websites. If you want to read, watch, and listen, and if you want to talk to others about that terrific video on NYT.com just like you talk about an article, you’ve got to subscribe.

So congrats to the Times on finding an approach that makes its product harder to steal while making digital subscribers feel like they are getting something valuable and unique for their money. If subscribers like the digital product enough that they are willing to pay serious money for it,  advertisers should like it, too.

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