Of course, part of the reason we writers give it away for free is because we just want people to pay attention. We write because we love to do it, sometimes (often) because we feel compelled to do so. But we also want someone to read our work. If we didn’t, we’d keep a journal and call it a day. It would be so much easier that way. Instead, we struggle and self-promote and wheedle until someone, somewhere, says we’re good enough. It seems fair to expect that those efforts would result in some sort of fair compensation.
I wonder, then, why I find myself balking at the New York Times paywall that went up last night at midnight. If there’s anything we writers worry about more than getting our own work published, it’s about the state of publishing in general. On one hand, there are more and more ways to get eyes on our work, and self publishing no longer means paying a vanity press and selling books out of the trunk of your car. On the other hand, newspapers and magazines and journals are struggling financially. They, too, are having to give it away for free just to get eyeballs. I understand this, I relate to it, and yet I am resentful that I am likely to burn through my twenty free articles at the NYT before a week is out. The online subscription is pricey, even more so if I plan to read via my preferred platform: on my iPhone or iPad, or god forbid, both. (For some unfathomable reason, the apps are priced separately for each device.) At almost 450 dollars a year for full functionality, I have no plans to subscribe. It’s just too much money for something I can get elsewhere for free.
See? There’s the rub. I know that I’m contradicting myself, but it’s a hypocritical business these days. I’m not alone. When AOL announced its 315 million dollar purchase of the Huffington Post, the blogosphere lit up in protest because the writers who had been providing free content for so long were not going to get a piece of that pie. Some of the protests came from publications that don’t pay their own writers. The underlying theme was, “Well sure, but we would if we could.”
I will be interested to see how things shake out at the Times. Several years ago, they tried putting certain content behind a pay wall, but it wasn’t long before people just stopped reading that stuff and went for the freebies. I’m sure that exhaustive analytics went into building the new model, but I can’t imagine that it will work. I already know that the way I interact with the Times will change dramatically. There are many times each day when I click on a headline and read the first two inches of the story just to get myself up to date. Those days are over. There are already work-arounds. (Clicking on a linked article from Facebook or Twitter, for example, won’t count towards your 20 article total. It took all of five seconds for someone to start a Twitter feed called @freeNYT.) Free or not, I'm not likely to go that route.
Deep down, I suspect that the Times has overestimated the loyalty of their readers. I wish they’d use models like some of the other publications I subscribe to. I have made a point of supporting the kinds of publications (and often the very publications) that have used my work for free. McSweeney’s has a fabulous app that costs only $5.00; The Rumpus offers a mystery subscription that supports the site and earns me swag every month. And even though entering fiction contests sometimes feel like paying to be rejected, I usually get something tangible in the bargain, like an issue or two of the literary journal, or sometimes even a full subscription. I’d be more than willing to buy a five dollar NYT app, but a 450 dollar subscription is too rich for my blood.