Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Times of Our Lives

If a dead tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it?

Those who have spent a lifetime (75 years in my case) with the New York Times, from days of smudged fingers on, are moved to realize that "All the News That's Fit to Print" is passing another milestone.

As the Times imposes subscription fees for more-than-casual readers, it's like the change in a long affair--with time out for 15 years of open digital co-habitation--after decades together under old rules.

In those days, it was like waking up every morning with a virtuous kept woman. We paid only pennies a day for her favors, but she held our ménage together in high style by selling a byproduct of the relationship--our attention--to advertisers, scrupulously walling off their interests from ours.

It's astonishing to look back at how well and for how long this variation on monogamy worked--our complete faith in the integrity of a partner whose survival depended on, as Blanche Du Bois might have put it, the kindness of others.

Over that time, to borrow another theatrical metaphor, we had unwittingly "grown accustomed to her face," and like Henry Higgins, much more emotionally involved than we realized.

At times of upheaval--the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK's assassination, 9/11--TV and then the Internet took over our minute-to-minute attention, but the Times was our security blanket. With a familiar face and unparalleled reporting, the printed paper reassured us that the world had not been knocked loose from its moorings.

Newer generations may be baffled by all this, but Marshall McLuhan explained it, sort of, half a century ago: "People don't actually read newspapers, they get into them every morning like a hot bath." As in all his pronouncements, there is much hot air but also a grain of truth.

When it comes to paying for online content now, we are not talking about Rupert Murdoch's rapacious Wall Street Journal here but something entirely else--a family-owned American institution that has economically endangered its existence to serve the nation well and is now doing what it has to do to survive.

If younger readers desert, the loss will be theirs. Those of us with good memories never will.

Update: As some long-time readers complain about the cost, the Times gives us the inside story (still free) of its agonizing debate over imposing digital fees.

President Arthur Sulzberger Jr. "wanted a flexible system, one that would allow the company to adjust the limit on the number of free articles as needed--in the case of a big breaking news event, for example.

“'Let’s imagine there’s a horrifying story like 9/11 again,' he said in an interview. 'We can--with one hit of a button--turn that meter to zero to allow everyone to read everything they want.'"

To return to my original metaphor, it sounds like being a little pregnant. Good luck with that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The price of an online subscription for the NYTimes is nearly the same as for the online edition of the WSJ. I do not subscript to the print edition as I do not want or need all the newsprint of either the Times or the WSJ.
I am willing to pay a fair price to read more than 20 articles/30 days of the NYTimes but it needs to be a lower price than what is being offered.
I was a print subscriber to the Boston Globe. That became outrageously expensive and we had to end that after more than 40 years of subscribing. Their online subscription price seems to be more reasonable but as of yet I have not subscribed.
I do not believe the papers owe me a free lunch - but given the amount of advertisement on the digital versions - the price point is too high in my opinion.