I have been a reader of the Los Angeles Times almost my entire literate life — It has great writers, awesome local coverage, and often digs deeper than the big news sites on local stories. However, I haven’t ever really paid for that subscription — When I lived with my parents (pre-career), I read their copy, and once I went off into the world, I read the online version. The L.A. Times helpfully provides RSS feeds, so someone like me can easily plug that into Google Reader and just get the articles I want — for me, this is perfect, and meets all my needs.
However, the L.A. Times, much like other papers, ends up on the losing end of this proposition.
- As more and more readers shift from print to online, fully-staffed publications like the Times are finding that they are not able to pay the bills with just ad revenue alone — they need the subscription fees (and the readership implied by that kind of financial commitment) for their bottom line
. So while the web, and Google, might love the local expertise that the L.A. Times brings to web users, the L.A. Times ends up losing out if they don’t make it back on ad revenue.
So their solution? Cookie-ing users and limiting the amount of free content the L.A. Times is willing to give away to frequent users. While this is annoying to people like me who have been essentially riding for free (though we have been seeing the display ads and rich media ads the Times loves to slather on their pages), it is an understandable move. But is it the right move, or a move of desperation?
On one hand, the tactic is good in that it still allows them to take advantage of a lot of web traffic, especially if one of their stories catches fire. They are able to compete with other papers for prestige regarding their coverage, and when their stories get picked up on the feed/crawl by Google, or featured on Drudge, that web traffic could possibly come almost unimpeded. Meanwhile, repeat users (people who go to the Times site specifically on a repeating basis) face a choice — pay a subscription fee, or go without.
And that’s where I think the strategy falls apart. I am probably the person in my family most on top of local news, especially local crime news, yet I balk at paying that fee. It’s just not worth it to me — I can still go to many other places, including feeds that re-print Times content (possibly owned by the Times themselves), and not have to pay. That’s just the way the web has always succeeded — free content, but lots of ads. The only part of the online industry to permanently buck this trend for any long period of time was the MMO community, but even they are going free-to-play, with optional payments being the new revenue stream. Adult had the best chance at the paid model and really has tried to make it work, but they also lost out to technology and how easy it is to steal and host content overseas illegally.
At the end of the day, you have to find an advertising model that works and pays the bills. I don’t know anyone who works at the Times, so I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that this is a move of desperation. The WSJ and Financial Times have been on a paid model for years, but those are niche, and luxury/prestige, publications. The L.A. Times does not have that kind of cache; With people like me getting turned back, habits are changing, and right now, I’m losing the L.A. Times habit.
So — you win the battle and lose the war. Maybe they have no real choice but to try this, but I think it depreciates their online assets and online readership by doing this, so in the event that they have to make more cuts or sell, the property is worth even less. It should be interesting to see what effect this tactic has over the next year and whether they can make it work.