Ben Smith, the former editor in chief of BuzzFeed News
, this week debuted his media column in The New York Times
with a look at what the newspaper's growing subscription revenue means
for rivals, especially in local news.
Smith frets that the NYT may become a monopolist like Google in online search and Facebook in social media by dominating the market
for paid circulation. Unfortunately, Smith doesn't provide much evidence that the news industry has become a zero-sum game -- that a dollar spent on an NYT subscription is a dollar that won't
be spent on regional publications, such as the Tampa Bay Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe or Seattle Times.
There is an air of defeat to
Smith's writing about his experience as the top editor at BuzzFeed News.
He bravely tried to compete with the NYT
before determining the best career choice would be to join his
former nemesis. After all, the NYT
has made a dramatic turnaround since the last recession; it focuses on a digital strategy
that partly replaced declining ad sales with
reader revenue, as I've written.
Smith sets up a straw-man argument that’s refuted by newspaper executives, including NYT publisher A.G. Sulzberger, who "still
cannot believe it when you mention the word 'monopoly.'" He says consumers will pay for more than one news subscription.
I agree with Sulzberger; the NYT is far from
a monopoly, and that it's helping to train a generation of readers to pay for their news instead of enjoying the internet free-for-all of the past 25 years. The technology to implement metered or hard
paywalls has improved, urging readers to pry open their wallets for unrestricted access.
Several studies have looked at the willingness of people to pay for news, including
one by the Reuters Institute
last year that suggested people were much more willing to
subscribe to a video streaming service than to a digital newspaper. Only about 16% of U.S. consumers are willing to pay for news, a level that has remained steady for the past few years.
Even though the NYT employs 1,700
journalists, the newspaper isn't a global panopticon that can keep an eye on everything. There are countless stories for local news outlets to tell that are more meaningful to readers than what
happens in global capitals. The NYT's business model can work for local publishers that find the right mix of meaningful content readers are willing to buy.