NYTimes is to Kindle as Gillette is to Razor

by John McGrath on February 14, 2008

Today, much like Dr. Hfuhruhurr performing two screw-top brain surgeries at once, I grind two of my favorite axes: The New York Times and Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader.

The Kindle, which is apparently selling better than I thought it would, can receive nine major news publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Le Monde, and, of course, The New York Times.

You’d think the news outlets would view this growing platform as an ideal opportunity to expand their reach, given their shrinking print readership. And you’d think that the Times in particular, having recently eliminated TimesSelect in a bid for scale, would be doing everything possible to leverage the popularity of the Kindle and subsequent devices.

You’d think, but you’d be wrong. You have to pay $14 per month to read the Times on a Kindle. Less than it costs in print, true, but $14 more than reading it on the web. It’s another sign that the NYTimes Company is conflicted at best, at war with itself at worst.

The future of news is digital, different rules apply to digital content, and those are the rules they should be playing by. And the first rule is that in a world governed by an overabundance of information, value flows in different directions. The attention information garners is more valuable than the information itself. Of course the two are related, but in addition to traditional attributes like quality content and a trusted brand (which still hold), easy, free, ubiquitous access becomes vital.

There are historical antecedents for reduced cost and increased access changing the media landscape. As Daniel Czitrom has pointed out, the introduction of the penny newspapers in the mid-nineteenth century, facilitated by the invention of the steam press, completely changed journalism. Reduced cost and increased access essentially created the Times in 1851, and those are the forces they should be paying attention to now.

Transitioning to a new model is painful, and it’s understandable that the Times would want to milk the old one as long as possible. It also makes sense that they’d have different strategies in effect in different places during a period of transition. But they let this go on too long at their own peril. Once a disruptive technology passes a certain threshold, to not embrace it fully means to go down with the ship. It’s time for the NYTimes Company to suck it up and move, across the board, to business models that are growing, rather than contracting.

At the very least they should be the cheapest news site available on the Kindle, rather than the most expensive. Free would be better. But why not take a page from Gillette and subsidize the cost of the Kindle, the way Gillette sells razors below cost and makes it up on the blades? Sell a Times-branded Kindle, with the Times set as the permanent default newspaper (they could make the thing less ugly while they’re at it). There’s an antecedent here, too: at one point Bloomberg Radio gave away thousands of cheap little radios, which could only tune in Bloomberg’s channel, WBBR.

If the Kindle really is doing well, it may herald a new platform, and the Times should ride that wave, rather than get swamped by it. It may be one of the ingredients that helps them hit the scale of which they’re capable, and which can lift them from their doldrums.

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