Living Without The New York Times

April 3, 2011

I have read the New York Times steadily, if not daily, since I was eleven and my folks had an ancient paper subscription. At different times I’ve loved it, liked it, been ambiguous.

As I’ve thought more and more about news as a consumer product, I’ve come to consider the New York Times as an entirely discretionary purchase. It is interesting and edifying, but it rarely contains information essential to my personal or professional survival.

When I was a political staffer at the U.S. Department of Energy I hung on reporter Matt Wald’s every word. But now, I really don’t need anything it has to offer. It makes me feel better about myself because after reading the NYT, I believe I am an, “informed American.”

This of course, is hogwash. And over the past week, I have been weening myself from the NYT and discovering more and more excellent alternatives each day.

Have you seen the Al Jazeera You Tube page? Awesome. Juan Cole on the Middle East? Naked Capitalism on economics?

Yeah, yeah. Finding these reliable alternatives is more work than just surfing the NYT website, and time is money, that’s why we pay for it.

I get it. That’s the argument I made to people about Early And Often. Time is money, especially when you’re dealing in scarce information.

But most of what the New York Times deals in is not scarce. You can find a lot more reporting on unique topics in The Economist or the Wall Street Journal than in the NYT.

The New York Times provides branded reporting. People read it because it comes from the New York Times, which signals readers that the reporting is authoritative. This authority derives from a significant portion of American and international decision makers agreeing that the NYT provides a direct channel to other decision makers. It’s like the Davos World Economic Forum of newspapers.

CNN used to be like that. Remember the Scud Studs? Americans weren’t the only ones watching them. They were globally famous.

Now there’s Al Jazeera. Russia Today. Sky News. Fox News. MSNBC. Global television news coverage is no longer scarce. It’s all over the place.

The CNN brand has been diluted by the availability of good reporting originating in other countries.

Clay Shirky pointed out the NYT paywall problem elegantly when he reviewed The Times of London’s paywall experience:

online, the Times has stopped being a newspaper, in the sense of a generally available and omnibus account of the news of the day, broadly read in the community. Instead, it is becoming a newsletter, an outlet supported by, and speaking to, a specific and relatively coherent and compact audience.

Soon, the New York Times will become more like a newsletter, and maybe even a really small one, unless it begins to offer something more than just making people feel like they know more than their neighbor.

If the NYT sinks behind a paywall and loses the vast majority of its audience (a fear that probably resulted in their sieve-like paywall design) it risks losing its position as a direct channel between global decision makers, and thus its authoritative position and thus its brand.

To be successful, the New York Times is going to have to master the trick the Wall Street Journal accomplished decades ago: It’s going to have to convince readers that every issue contains information that changes lives.