There's a lot of harrumphing around the blogosphere about the New York Times' decision to again put up paywalls for digital access (the last attempt, TimesSelect, was shuttered in 2007). People are gaming out the angles: Have they chosen the right price points at as much as $20 a month? Why the different prices for the iPad app vs. website access vs. print subscriptions?
But the whole approach is wrong-headed. With its large, affluent, reasonably liberal and guilt-ridden audience, the Times would have more monetary success and more brand success with an NPR-like pay-what-you-will membership model with free events, tote bags, and other goodies thrown in. Membership dues are a significant source of revenue for NPR—43% of the budget in 2009.
Why does it make sense to charge only 15% of "power users," as the Times says this new subscription model will? Readers of all stripes feel good about associating with the Times—just look at how often the phrase "Sunday Times" shows up in personal ads. The paper should build up this goodwill rather than make us feel bilked, or have to puzzle over the merits of various pricing models as though we were shopping for cable packages.
A bit of NPR-style customization wouldn't hurt either. These days, like millions of younger people, I get my public-radio fix mainly on-demand or through podcasts. I get a special glow by supporting the specific shows that I like—and they make it really easy with text-based fundraising. I would gladly pay $ to be delivered a digital or paper version of the Times that has extra book reviews and skips the automotive section, and I'd love to contribute specifically to the investigative and world news sections.
The Times should call NPR CEO Vivian Schiller. She'd have a lot of great advice for them—in her last job, she worked for NYTimes.com on TimesSelect.