Welcome to the end of news, or at least the end of news as I know it. This week the New York Times introduced digital subscriptions for US readers of the Times online, a move which the paper has been planning for at least two years. Starting Monday, March 28, visitors to NYTimes.com, as well as users of the Time’s smartphone and tablet apps, will be limited to 20 discrete page views per month. That’s 20 slideshows, articles or videos—20 clicks!
In the world of hypertext and interactive media, 20 clicks goes fast. I put a kettle on and blew my 20 clicks before the water had begun to boil, at which point I was prompted to enroll in one of three subscription plans. The plans are fairly priced (starting at four bucks per week, roughly half of what it costs to buy the Times from a dispenser), they include access to the Times’ digital archive and, if you are so inclined, unlimited use of a smartphone or tablet app.
As an avid reader of the Times online I’ve been anticipating this transition from free content to flat-rate subscriptions for some time, and honestly I think that Arthur Sulzberger, publisher and chairman of the paper’s corporate board, made a mistake waiting this long to implement the program. I love the Times and I respect the work they do, I want to see the paper thrive. So why haven’t I subscribed? Why am I unwilling, even as I write this, to start paying for my news?
Well, I’m broke for one thing. Last spring I quit my job. I spent my summer in the woods, backpacking from Mexico to Canada. Five months on a mountain, no boss, no office, you get the idea. In October, when I returned to real life, I found myself more or less allergic to tall buildings, especially offices. I couldn’t bring myself to find another full-time job. Instead, I have been freelancing, finishing projects that may never see the light of day, protecting my free time and living two or three steps from the steep edge of my meager means. Currently, I’m cutting non-essential services and unfortunately a subscription to Times falls somewhere below new (re: used) books and good coffee on my Scale of Basic Needs.
If I absolutely need to read the Times I’ll forage for a copy at a cafe, or, depending on the depth and urgency of my need, I will run across the street to the dispenser outside Safeway. Besides, for those of us who live in a big city (I live in Portland, Oregon, which only looks like a big city if you squint, but it’s the sort of place where everybody reads the Times) copies of the Times are just about ubiquitous. They pile up inside the doors of restaurants and cafes. They end up as packaging, as padding. So, in summary, 1) I’m cheap and 2) the Times is just, you know, around.
But there must be a good reason why I’m willing to fork over cash for Netflix, decent coffee, not-too-awful bourbon, and yet I’m undecided about paying for the Times. It’s Sulzberger’s fault. He let me get away with it, and now, after a full decade of free browsing, I’ve come to expect free content. My experience bears out a bogus notion: I believe the Times to be a kind of common property, a resource, like fresh water or the Yosemite Valley, held in trust by the community and offered gratis as a basic right of every citizen. An idiotic idea, but I cannot shake it.
NYTimes.com went live in 1996, the internet’s stone age, pre-Google, back when Netscape, NetConnect and EarthLink were still viable. In the decade and a half since Sulzberger first offered free content on NYTimes.com the web has doubled in size roughly every twenty minutes, and even the most ardent Times’ apologist browses, oh, let’s say at the very least about a dozen websites every day, sites that offer information, editorials and news, not to mention sports and weather and Sudoku. The Times is going toe-to-toe with Google, Wikipedia and the vast, fickle “blogosphere,” a world which, like the Twilight Zone, lies somewhere between light and shadow, between science and the basest superstition, between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. How can the times compete with that?
NYTimes.com has always been a strange beast, a cocktail of old-fashioned values, rigid design and, to some extent, lo-fi technological savvy—watch an episode or two of A. O. Scott’s great Movie Minutes and you’ll see what I mean. Sulzberger still provides a necessary service, he (and this is just lazy metonymy, by “he” I mean the paper’s global network of reporters, photogs, editors, designers) understands that NYTimes.com is like a like living, breathing monument to the lost art of “serious” corporate journalism. A kind of freak, a walking skeleton, the bones of someone we have known and loved. Who knows, maybe Sulzberger is right. Maybe I will shell out 20 bucks for a subscription, if not today or tomorrow then some time in the near future. Or maybe I will learn to love my 20 clicks, I will embrace the maddening constraint. Maybe maybe maybe. As for now, I’m holding out, waiting to see how my body reacts to the shock of sudden withdrawal. No more mindless browsing. And in the end I guess I just believe the Times will be around if I need it. At least for a while.