I ran into a representative of The New York Times the other day at lunch. “Holy guacamole.” he said to me from the next table. As he did he put down an archaic looking cellphone signaling to the rest of the cafe that it was okay to start talking again. He immediately began explaining to me that he was in town on business, “We’re seeing if we can’t move papers here (Hyde Park, Chicago). Try to get a few professors to use them in their classes. Have you ever read The Times?”
“Of course, but online.” I said. “I understand that you guys are in trouble these days.”
“Right now our readership is actually going up” he responded “As the smaller papers go out of business their readers become ours. We’re picking up 120,000 subscriptions at a time. But yeah we’re in trouble, this must have been how Edward J. Smith felt.” (I had to look it up too, he was the captain of the Titanic.) “I don’t understand why we’re in trouble, people like to read, you like to read, can you honestly say you do all your reading online?”
Yes I can say that (and I did) . Amongst our generation there’s no question of competition between print and screen. I do everything on my computer and the ease of opening a new tab is something that print will never match. But a sheaf of print was never The Times real product–print simply used to be the cheapest medium for delivering content. These days The Internet is that medium and I think The Times has embraced this (although apparently our guy hasn’t). In fact, their site is a savvy piece of work. But I felt the need to press him further: “What do you guys think about reddit?”
He’d never heard of reddit, and I was appalled, it was like a Coca-Cola employee not having heard of Pepsi. I obligingly explained, trying to conceal my pride at my generations elegant solution. The Time’s content could never beat reddit’s, because reddit’s content included The Time’s, it was a simple subset argument. Finally we got to the question: “So what’s reddit got that we don’t?” Aha, I knew this one cold, reddit’s got its community, its chaotic masses that somehow always float the most interesting bits of The Internet to the top of the home page and have collectively consumed every scrap of sci fi in existence. The New York Times might create brilliant content, but reddit facilitates its consumption and the former, by itself isn’t a business model anymore. Not on the scale The Times needs it to be. This is reddit’s edge.
But it isn’t. The New York Times is pulling in 15 million unique visitors a month (according to compete.com) and reddit’s community won’t beat The Time’s. Anyone who’s anyone reads it. Winston Churchill read it. Try to imagine what his karma would have looked like. The problem is, right now they’re doing nothing to leverage this community, and this is the final nail for print. They don’t need to convince us to read their paper’s or use it in our classes, we already do that, they need to convince us to pay for it. The Times is planning to finally cut off free access and try to sell subscriptions to its online content. If this happens it will be the end of my readership. But if they offer me the option of interacting with their other readers (their staff would be cool as well), who share my interests and have worthwhile opinions, then I’m in. I’m in for double what they’re thinking about asking right now.