Do You Subscribe to Fox News?

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At every opportunity this summer, I would ask people, random strangers to close friends, whether they subscribed to Fox News. In the circles I tend to travel, the answer was some form of dismissive, "Are you kidding?" Well, actually, I was not. By the most recent estimate I found, 80 percent of Americans have either cable or satellite television service, which means that all of them are subscribers to Fox News, AMC (Mad Men), Lifetime (Project Runway), and many dozens more. The most expensive subscription on basic cable is ESPN (exact numbers are hard to come by, but it is over $4 a month). Fox News costs you about $.75 monthly.

Once aware that they are supporting Bill O'Reilly et al, most of my interlocutors shrug and say something about bundling charges on cable or their combined bill, which includes broadband access and even, in many cases, telephones. Paying these bills, which on average are well over $100 per month, is routine now in the overwhelming majority of American homes. There was a movement a few years ago to consider "a la carte" pricing for cable, which would allow customers to choose the channels they wanted. That concept went nowhere because it meant that only popular channels would flourish. Those favored by smaller numbers--my relatively esoteric cable favorites are the Independent Film Channel, Turner Classic Movies, and C-Span-would probably disappear or certainly suffer.

In the current economic media crisis, cable companies have remained consistently strong because of this fee structure, even in the face of a reduced (but steady) stream of advertising, and because cable is among the last things that struggling households would cancel.

Few readers of this piece, I suspect, would be surprised by what I have written so far. But the point of reviewing the issue now is the next question I put to people. "How much would you pay for a monthly Internet subscription to the New York Times?" The answers range from "name the price" to "why should I pay? I already get it for free." And therein resides the challenge: Americans willing to pay for cable television subscriptions to channels they never watch must be persuaded to subscribe to online versions of the publications they read in print or on the Internet.

Soliciting subscriptions to newspapers and magazines has always been a business with many layers, from old-fashioned door-to-door peddling to the most sophisticated direct marketing. In the heyday of Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes, millions were spent on advertising $10 million dollar prizes. But the product supporting all that hoopla was actually magazine subscriptions sold, in most cases, at deep discounts from their cover prices. Most magazine subscriptions these days still cost pennies per issue, although several, such as Newsweek, are deliberately driving down their circulation numbers by ramping up the costs of getting them.  Their goal is a smaller base accustomed to paying more.

A daily and Sunday subscription to the New York Times, costs $608.40 in Connecticut, where I live, or, by my calculation, nearly 40 percent off the cover price. All the paper's Internet services are still free, but a subscription on Amazon's Kindle costs $13.99 a month, a first foray into charging for contents on a digital device.

Over the next few months, it seems safe to predict, there will be a lot more activity around establishing Internet and mobile subscription products for print publications. USA Today is already offering an e-edition at a "limited time only" promotional price of $.25 a day, charged to your credit card, with an array of features and a weekend "extra" when the paper itself does not appear. After the trial run of eight weeks, the price doubles to $9.95 every four weeks.

Journalism Online, the enterprise that has attracted considerable attention, claims to be closing in on an agreement with hundreds of news organizations that would start collecting for content under an assortment of payment options. I read an early prospectus for Journalism Online, which probably has been modified in the process of lining up users. But what I read still strikes me as too complicated for the ordinary consumer. There are a number of other pay-for-use plans that seem to be developing, but details of how they would operate are obscured, for proprietary reasons I imagine, by terminology such as micro-payments, metering, and membership.

For these initiatives to succeed, there will need to be a change in the way people think about how subscriptions now work. Suppose you live in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, or Chicago, where the main newspapers are in bankruptcy and could disappear. In that case, you still will have your subscription to Fox News, but you will no longer have the invaluable news gathering these newspapers have done in print and online. Framed that way, it may well turn out that "bundled" subscriptions to get the news as an add-on to some bill you are already paying--such as your monthly broadband connection--could be a path to a restored measure of financial stability, assuming that advertising starts to recover. As sometimes happens, the future may be a restored link to the past. Let's find a way to sell subscriptions to publications we value. Publisher's Clearing House (or some legal heir to its energetic hype), are you listening?

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