Blogger’s Ethical Dilemma: The New York Times’ New Plan

I'm gonna hate to lose you guys!

The New York Times announced yesterday that it will begin charging for content on its website. After 20 articles have been read by any user within a month, that user will be required to purchase a $15 a month access fee, or forgo the “Grey Lady,” online at least. (Subscribers to the paper will have still have unlimited free access to the digital version.)

For bloggers like me, who rely on hundreds of on-line sources for my ethics commentary, the new Times plan poses an ethical dilemma. I do not think the Times’ new system is unreasonable, and I know newspapers are struggling for their lives. (I don’t think this approach will save them, but that is neither here nor there.) The paper, like many newspapers, creates valuable and unique content and this costs money; we have no right to demand that we get it free of charge, though I am sure many web warriors will be up in arms over this. And the Times is one of the very best sources, generating essays and articles every day that other publications only cover after the Times has led the way.

On the other hand, my field, which is the broadest of any of the ethics sites on the Web, requires that I use many sources, and I certainly can’t afford to pay for all of them. The $180 I would pay for a year of the Times will be a net loss: if Ethics Alarms produces any income, I can’t identify it.

I won’t compromise the quality and mission of this site, and if paying for the Times is the only way to avoid doing that, I’ll pay. In the meantime, though, I’m going to see if I really need aricles in the Times more than 20 times a month. If given a choice between the Times’ version of a story and the Des Moines Register’s, I may choose the latter; I may also use stories on other sites that quote the Times, rather than using the Times story directly. If I have a hard copy from the newsstand, as I often do, I may cite the Times without including a link. Yes, that’s less convenient for Ethics Alarms readers, but you’ll only be able to use 20 links a month without being charged too.

I have anticipated changes like this, and there will be more of them, I’m sure. I want the Times to survive, and I want them to be justly compensated for their work. Unfortunately, I may have to use less of it as a result, and in so doing so, I will indirectly hurt the Times. A link to the Times in a story here may lead a thousand or more readers to the Times website: will it really be worth $15 to the Times to risk losing all those potential readers? Time will tell.

I have to decide what’s right, both for Ethics Alarms and the news organizations that make it possible. Like many ethics decisions, it is a balancing act, and at this moment, I am not certain what the proper balance should be.

If you are, for God’s sake tell me.

17 thoughts on “Blogger’s Ethical Dilemma: The New York Times’ New Plan

  1. Too bad for The Times. They are way too late getting technology-savvy. Just hubris. Most newspapers and magazines make their m0ney on advertising — rates set by size of circulation.

    The Times has lost circulation because they have lost their initial objective: “All the news that’s fit to print.” Sure, Obama and Democratic support appears 0n the first 10 pages of the first section. Everything — including corrections of gross errors in previous stories — appear on page 40 and above. For decades, since the Hurst papers, many periodicals make no bones about their political bent. But The Times has always set itself above that: it is not, as it has revealed time and again over the past several decades.

    So fewer people are reading it? Perhaps it’s time for an honest analysis of its content.

    I will say the editorials are often worth reading,but not for the price of the Sunday Times.

    Possible solution: Since the paper Times is 65% advertising, why not run ads on the Internet version? Readers could sign up for free, advertisers could pay based on the Internet readership, and we could ignore those ads the same way we ignore the paper ads.

  2. We get print copies of the Times at my university, and I could help copy down some of the articles and email them to you if you hear about anything interesting. (Disclaimer: Other things will probably pop up interfering with my ability to do so).

  3. I think a lot of people will simply wind up reading the Times less frequently. I don’t have a solution. I’m just noting, sadly, what I think the outcome will be.

  4. Julian’s comments seem to miss the point of the ethical dilemma posed by the NY Times decision to charge $15 per month for access to their online website. I believe he has the best of intentions but copying down the articles and e-mailing them out is a way of getting around the new rules. The Ethics Alarms piece very accurately defines the ethical problem. When we take action to skirt the spirit of a law or rule to achieve a desired goal we cross the line between ethical and unethical behavior. We may not agree with a law, or in this case the NY Times rule, but, as clearly explained by Ethics Alarms, our choice is to pay the NY Times fee or use some other, perhaps less reliable or at least less visible source for information.

    • Yes, that’s right. There’s another problem too: those who link to the Times now have to flag it. I’ve already used up two of my 20 “reads” by clicking on a hot link that went to the Times. Since going to the Times now carries eventual costs, I have an obligation not to send readers there without notice.

  5. Elizabeth: historical note: “For decades, since the Hurst papers…”

    That’s the “Hearst” papers, as in the wealthy and flamboyant William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). He built that wonderful Hearst Castle near San Simeon, up the coast from San Luis Obispo, CA. If you ever get a chance, take the tour. Ladyfriend of mine had a temporary job as a tour guide there.

    Hearst imported all knds of exotic animals to graze the property. There was a recent scandal when a neighboring rancher shot and killed two Hearst zebras that had strayed onto his property.

    Orson Welles’ classic film, “Citizen Kane”, is based on WRH.

  6. I don’t even see an ethical dilemma here. Whether you do or do not make money from your blog is beside the point. The Times produces a product that you like, that you value, and that you want to use in your own work. Therefore, you should pay for it if they ask you to. If it is really too much for you to handle to forgo three trips to Starbucks in order to have access to the Times, then you should adapt to using other sources. Figuring out ways around the paywall is no different than trading copyrighted music, or installing pirated software, or shoplifting. Any attempt to convince yourself otherwise is folly. Claiming it will indirectly hurt the Times because you do not steal its content is ludicrous and a real mark of how absurd this situation has gotten, and how entitled we all feel.

    The only mistake the Times made is not charging far earlier; but when they tried the first time, they were so far ahead of the curve that no one understood what they were doing. The past decade has been an absurd time in which people have become accustomed to the delusion that intellectual property, and indeed ANYTHING on the internet, is free. It is long past time we got over that notion.

    In 1995, you would have been paying a lot more than $15 a month to have access to the Times every day, or you simply wouldn’t have used it. Or, you would have paid it to the Des Moines Register and they would have far more revenue to spend on having an excellent newspaper. They might have had a Washington bureau, they would have had more beat reporters, better arts and sports coverage. They would have competed on content. When everything is free, nothing has value. Advertising is not the solution, and to suggest as much indicates wishful thinking and/or a profound misunderstanding of the business model of newspapers, where lots and lots of people need to get paid to make a good product.

    In any event, there is no dilemma. You must pay to receive goods and services unless the provider is kind enough to offer it for free.

    • I didn’t dispute that. But other sources offer essentially the same thing for free. And there is nothing unethical with monitoring use to stay within free parameters. I have no problem paying the small fee—I do have problems making money for the Times by making readers pay the fee, or including links that a onetime visitor mihjy have to pay to see. Did you even read the article?

      Figuring ways to use the same information without paying is certainly NOT the same as file-sharing, which is illegal. I can borrow my sister’s Times and use the hard copy. There are a million ways. Sure, I can pay for one, or two, or five papers like this, but not 50. I’d say your whole-hearted endorsement of the Times precedent is more than a little facile.

      • I read your list of commenting do-s and dont-s and I’m sorry I didn’t use my exact real name. I also noticed your list of pet-peeves, and I think they are all spot on. Might I add to that list: Please don’t suggest I didn’t read your article/post/comment because I failed to address, or perhaps misinterpreted, some single part of it.

        I don’t see that linking readers to the Times and “making” them pay a fee is the crux of the ethical dilemma. I’m sorry if I am misunderstanding you, but I think your post implies that the paywall itself is the ethical dilemma. Indeed, I still see no dilemma. Many publications operate in this exact way. If I avidly read entertainment blogs, I can only click on three – count ’em three – links to Variety per month before I have to pay. Much of the WSJ has been behind a paywall for a long time. And so on.

        Your readers are no different than you, and are empowered to make the same decision to pay or not pay, no matter how they came upon the Times’s website. In essence, the Times is generous for giving people 20 freebies and not slapping up the pay-now box on the first link. You are not forcing anyone to pay the fee, nor are you “fo0ling” anyone into accidentally using up one of their 20 freebies, which have no inherent value anyway.

        If I seem prickly about this, it’s because I am genuinely upset about the changes, not only in journalism but in intellectual property in general, that have happened in the past 10 years, particularly a) the notion that “information wants to be free”, b) the notion that any blogger or any source is as valid and valuable as any other publication, and c) the notion that using someone else’s content on a blog that is permanently, instantly available to 5 billion people is the same as quoting from a source in a monograph that might end up on a few thousand shelves. I desperately want to see leadership from someone on this, and I think the Times is in a good position to make a change happen. But I digress!

        • Well, your first clue was the title: “blogger’s dilemma.” That means there was no discussion of the paywall’s ethical character at all, except my clear statement that the Times has every right to charge for content.

          It’s my dilemma, I think I understand it pretty well. The Starbucks argument is silly—I wouldn’t spend 180 bucks on Starbucks, either. I’ve been cutting out discretionary expenses a whole lot cheaper than $180 buck. This like arguing that its not worth cutting NPR, wasteful as it is, because the deficit is so big. Fact: I need many sources. Fact: I can’t pay for all of them. FACT: if the Times says I can use 20 articles a month without paying, there is nothing wrong with me doing that. FACT: my own blog is producd at considerable expenditure of time, as free content. The longer I avoid expenditures, the longer I can do that.

          You also don’t seem to understand the system. I’m trying to use the Times 20 times a year or less. I recently clicked on a blind link on another site that too me to the Times. Now I only have 19 free links. I’m not doing that to my readers, and I’m not sure I want to include a link that Times-conserving readers won’t be able to click on.

          The article said that the Times system creates dilemmas for me, not that the Times has done anything unethical (dumb, perhaps, but not unethical.) So defending the Times is really off the point.

          • Of course it is your call whether the cost is worth it. I would guess that there is 50 cents per day, roughly the price of a newspaper in 1995, that one could re-allocate (which is not to say one must do so.) Also, you may not spend $180 on Starbucks per year but all it takes is one purchase per week – hardly silly. I merely brought that up to illustrate the relative bargain the Times is giving readers, if they value the product enough. A more apt analogy to NPR would be to say, it’s not worth cutting NPR because we could cut one fighter jet development program to pay for it (and about 100 other programs as well). (Again, that’s not to say we should do so).

            As for your readers: if they are truly so concerned about conserving their free articles, they are likely to be circumspect about what links they click. If they click some blind links–which I assume you would not provide–and accidentally use up 2 or 3 of their free articles, and they are so concerned that they feel ethically violated, chances are that they value the Times so much that they really ought to pay the 50 cents a day. Otherwise I don’t think they have the right to complain. But this is purely my opinion. (I’m not sure why you infer that I don’t understand the Times’s system, which is quite straightforward).

            Now, I see your point that defending or criticizing the Times is not the thrust of your post. I am perfectly willing to admit that I misunderstood you. I have to point out, though, that never in your original post do you explicitly posit a dilemma. Only in your reply to “Ethics Sage” do you say that you are concerned that your readers will accidentally use up a free article. Ethics Sage actually seems to agree with my original reading of the post, which is that the dilemma lays in choosing whether or not to skirt the paywall, to which you reply “you’re right.” My answer to that, which follows, is that this is not a dilemma, in my opinion; but your reply to me indicates that the paywall-skirting is not, in fact, the dilemma to which you refer, but for the first time you bring up the issue of “making” readers pay the Times’s fee, which you also refer to as “doing that to [your] readers,” again implying that something unethical is happening on your part.

            I don’t mean to be pedantic but I suppose I would like to see your reasoning in greater detail as to what exactly the dilemma is.

            • Unless you mean that the dilemma is not an ethical dilemma – which, as you point out, is the title of the post, and appears a couple times in the text – but is purely a non-ethical dilemma of choosing whether or not to fork over the dough instead of carefully metering your freebies. In which case I simply did misunderstand you.

              • An ethical dilemma, which is explicitly described in the terms section, is where an ethical principle is in conflict with a non-ethical consideration. Dilemma: I think the right thing is to pay for the work of the Times et al—-practically speaking, it causes me some risks, and applying the principle universally, as Kant would insist, means that I’d have to pay for 100 sources, and you’d have to pay for mine. Fair, but stupid. The whole system would fall apart.

            • See my next response regarding “the dilemma.” But there is no “skirting” the paywall. I never suggested that I wouldn’t play by the Times new rules. Why do I have to use the Times more than 20 times a month? The Times says they are giving me that. There is no “skirting” if I choose to take the paper’s “free option.”

  7. I think this would hurt the Times more than help them because Ianyone could go to any website and get information for free. Secondly, people who use the Times may not want to pay if they use it 20 times a month. I like to read alot of blogs on different subjects, and I hardly ever see the New York Times cited in any and they are very good blogs. There are probably alot of loyal Times fanatics but I can see the use of it dropping if you have to pay to use it so many times a month.

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