The Persistence of Print

Starting today the 28 March 2011, the New York Times will go behind a paywall, following The Times, The Economist, Financial Times, and other subscription-based print periodicals with an online co-presence. For those who choose not to subscribe, access will be limited to twenty articles per month, excluding articles reached through Google’s news feed and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Although there may well be some promising workarounds for the tech-savvy, the bottom line is that heavy users of this website—regardless of where in the world they happen to be located at the moment—will be obligated to pay up USD $455 per year.

Note that I write ‘up to USD $455 per year’. There are cheaper methods of gaining unlimited access, even if you are not trying to game the system in any manner. For those living in areas of the United States which are eligible to receive home delivery of the New York Times, $3.10 per week, or $161.20 per year, for a weekday subscription will also provide unlimited access to the website across all digital platforms. The least expensive digital subscription option, by comparison, is $3.75 per week, or $195 per year…and you won’t be able to read the paper on your iPad. What gives? Why, in the second decade of the 21st century, are newspapers printed on pulped up trees still the cheapest consumer option?

The answer to this question is simple: revenue streams. It may seem to the average person as if newspapers are selling news content to their readers, but this is not in fact the case. Rather, they are selling their readers’ attention to advertisers—and print ads pay way better than online ads. The discrepancy between the print revenue stream and the digital revenue stream is so large, in fact, that the New York Times does not consider an online-only, open-access news delivery model to be financially sustainable. Therefore, the new pricing structure exists first and foremost to incentivize print subscriptions and secondarily to offset the loss of ad revenue to those readers who prefer going wholly digital.

The political economy favors print in other sectors of the publishing industry as well. For all the talk about e-books these days, one might think it strange that there are still paper books on the market at all. Granted, some people, myself included, do not prefer e-books, but reader preference alone does not explain the puzzling persistence of print. Some people undoubtedly enjoyed eight-tracks—and where have those gone? Nope, once again it’s about profit potential: a hardcover book priced at $26 might actually make a publisher more money than an e-book edition of the same title priced at $9.99. Only when e-books are priced at approximately $12.99 or higher do publishers see a revenue advantage in going digital, and consumers may view a trade paperback priced at $13.99 as better value for money. The sales numbers thus far bear this out.

In Books in the Digital Age (2005), John B. Thompson theorizes that certain textual forms are more amenable to digitization than others. Items valued for their indexical qualities, such as dictionary definitions and encyclopedia entries, are welcomed by readers when digitized. Ephemeral texts, such as articles in magazines, journals, and newspapers, are the same. But longer forms which must be read end-to-end, such as novels and scholarly monographs, resist digitization. He certainly has a point, as any researcher printing out .pdfs of scholarly journal articles undoubtedly knows. Yet there are other reasons why texts do not go digital which have nothing to do with their textual properties. The habits of markets clearly matter, too.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Sociological Imagination’s Mediated Matters columnist.

Categories: Mediated Matters

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