Subscribing to The New York Times

My complimentary ‘digital subscription’ to The New York Times is coming to an end, so I just ponied up the equivalent of US$195 for a year’s renewal. For obvious reasons, I’m emotionally invested in The Times’ survival, and in fact would like to see it prosper for generations to come. But the process of renewing was unpleasant and left me angry, and it wasn’t even about how expensive it was.

The problem is that it’s so difficult for a customer to determine which of the many subscription choices really offer the best value.This is true even for a customer like me, who is dedicated to the brand, technically proficient and a former employee of the company.


Numbers Game

In the run up to my subscription expiring, the company had been sending me promotions that were urgent in their warnings but exasperating in their vagueness. Each email was unequivocal about the number of days that remained in my subscription, but the renewal rates were only hinted at. I could have the first eight weeks for 99¢, but that was obviously just an introductory rate.

When I clicked through on the offer, there was still no way to know what I’d be paying after those first two months were up, unless I logged in with my user account. When I did so, only then did I find out that the regular rate is US$3.75 per week. Who prices this stuff by the week?! In fact, even the company seemed unsure about measuring its subscription rates this way, as it occasionally referred to it as US$15 for every four weeks, which is still not the most straightforward way to calculate a subscription that you expect to run for a year. There was no true monthly rate listed, or even an annual rate. And what’s more, small print warned me that ‘applicable taxes’ apply — even though this is a purely digital subscription — so there was literally no way to determine the true cost of the subscription using the site itself.

All of this was for the Web site-plus-smartphone app package. There was also a Web site-plus-tablet app package on offer for US$5.00 a week — why one is more expensive than the other, I have no idea. If I wanted a package that covers everything, Web site, smartphone app, and tablet app, the cost would have been US$8.75 per week. Note too that to reveal these rates, I had to hit the back button in my browser to return to the offer page and log in again each and every time.

The total customer experience here is haphazard at best, and, at worst — I hate to say this because I am still friendly with many people at the company, but in truth there’s no way around it — it’s insulting. It shows a certain amount of disrespect to customers for a company to choose not to present a full accounting of available offers, displayed plainly and in an easy-to-compare chart, so that anyone can fully understand all of the options and decide quickly.

Why would it be so hard to be as explicit that? I ask that rhetorically, but from my experience as an employee I remember exactly why: The Times as a business remains both in thrall of and a prisoner of its old print mathematics, wherein pricing for delivery of the physical newspaper was complicated and subject to frequent and fleeting special promotions. By design, print subscribers were never sure if they were getting the best deal on their subscriptions, and that mentality has transferred over to its digital business. The result is sadly hostile to those looking to subscribe digitally, and gives the unmistakable impression that the company is gaming its customers.

Just for comparison, here’s how some other digital businesses price their products: Netflix is US$8 a month. Spotify is between US$5 and US$10 per month. Evernote is US$5 per month or US$45 per year. Birchbox is US$10 per month. Hulu Plus is US$8 per month. Flickr is US$25 per year. MLB.tv is US$25 per year. And so on. There is really no good reason that pricing for The New York Times couldn’t be as simple as that.

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39 Comments

  1. it is confusing. when i chose to subscribe, i actually opted for their weekender home delivery package so i’d enjoy the print asthetic on the weekends when life was a step slower and had access via web/iphone/ipad during my morning train ride. more on my experience & logic here: blog post (where i actually quote you haha).

  2. A reason why the Times only publish four-weekly rates instead of an annual rate is probably that it sounds so much cheaper: ‘only’ pay US$15 per four weeks instead of US$195.

    By the way, it’s interesting to see that the costs for a renewal equals the costs for subscribing for the first time. No loyalty discount for current subscribers…

  3. John: good post, and thanks for quoting me! One thing I decided not to include in my post was acknowledgment of the fact that the best subscription deal that The Times offers is home delivery of the actual newspaper. Even if you opt for the cheapest home delivery plan, it’s still cheaper than the all-access digital plan, plus you get the paper delivered to your door. I thought about going this route but I really have no use for the physical paper anymore and decided against it.

  4. Khoi: fair enough. smart move by the times to subsidize their print biz though, maybe? by keeping digital cost lowest if you select home delivery. although, i have no inner knowledge of their revenue intentions. just 20 years of seeing the blue plastic paper bags litter my parents house.

  5. In Denver, I subscribe to the Sunday print edition of the Times for $3.75 per week. This also grants me full digital access.

    Because I read the Times exclusively on the iPad, I never even take the printed paper out of the plastic bag. It goes straight into the recycling bin. I felt bad about that, so I went to the Times site to see about switching over to a digital-only sub. As you pointed out, it’s $8.75 per week.

    So, as much as I’d like to go the greener route, an extra $260 per year is hard to swallow.

    (I realize that I’m probably more valuable to the Times as a print subscriber in terms of advertising, but still…)

  6. I had to call a human (also very hard to do) at the Times customer service number to figure out that I would likely not use the web site enough to exceed the free amount anyone gets. But it was complex and needlessly so.

    The Times has been obfuscatory, even with print subscriptions, going back decades. I subscribed to the paper for many years in the 1990s and 2000s (if I lived in an area that got it). There again, billing was really confusing and, it always seemed like I was getting ripped off. But, I probably wasn’t. It just left a bad taste each time. Indeed, my last subscription ended because of ongoing delivery problems, but the billing never failed if I got a paper or not. After I got one Sunday paper in a month but was billed for four papers, I dropped it.

  7. Daniel Brogan: Instead of tossing a new paper, why not find a library, school, college, veterans home, nursing home, homeless shelter, etc. that would take new print copies? Even a poor neighbor or friend might appreciate reading it. Call it a gift!

    Another idea is have it go to work with you for the break room or reception area for clients. One great pleasure is reading the Times in reflective lighting while on a break *away* from transmissive LED screen light – which makes our eyes tire faster.

    I wonder if the delivery of paper address could go strait to a school too?

  8. As Daniel Brogan suggests, the reason it’s cheaper to subscribe to the physical paper and throw it away is because the advertisers are still paying for the number of physical papers delivered to your doorstep. The Times is going to continue to offer that “discount” until advertisers fix that broken model.

  9. It gets even weirder, I performed the same pricing exercise today but as an American living in the UK I checked out the IHT prices. IHT offers a smartphone IHT app + total access to the NYTimes website for $3.75/week just like the NY Times US edition.

    But where the NY Times US sub for the iPad includes the NY Times website for $3.75/wk, for the IHT you pay $3.75 just for the iPad app without getting access to the NY Times website. I can’t understand the logic here at all!

    Finally, the all inclusive digital bundle for the USA edition (phone/pad/NYTimes website) is $8.75/wk, the IHT all inclusive digital bundle (iPhone, iPad, IHT reader and access to the NY Times US/global web site) is only $6.25/wk.

  10. Jensen: You’re right; I too quickly just grabbed the price I saw at their site, not realizing it didn’t cover the regular season. I’ve subscribed in the past and recall now it was more expensive than that. Plus, with their arcane blackout rules, Major League Baseball is not a great example of how big corporations can make things simpler for their consumers.

  11. For the record, there is an easy open public place where all the digital subscription options are laid out:
    http://www.nytimes.com/content/help/account/purchases/subscriptions-and-purchases.html#purchasesq01
    How you’re meant to find it I’m not entirely sure, however, and of course it doesn’t go into detail w/r/t the print alternatives.
    The thing which confuses me the most is the pricing of the full digital bundle at $8.75/week. I suspect it’s a way of communicating to print subscribers that they’re getting $455/year of digital value free with their print subscription.

  12. The Times’ weekly pricing reminds me of how delis price their cold cuts: $X.99 per 1/2 pound. That peppered turkey might seem like a great deal with the large $5.99 on its sign, but the tiny “per 1/2 pound” always makes me rethink my choices.

  13. When I signed up for the 99 cent subscription, they cancelled my free subscription early to get my 8 week trial started before my free subscription was set to expire. When I complained they sent me the following email:

    “The complimentary subscription was cancelled to allow for the creation of the new, ongoing subscription and provide uninterrupted service.”
    Does the New York Times think its readers are that stupid? Insulting is the perfect description. Thanks for writing this, Khoi.

  14. Clarity around their gift subscriptions is not to be had, either. For Christmas my son and I were given 26 weeks of all digital access, with the idea of sharing the access as described on the NYT site. I redeemed the code on Christmas Day, but could not follow their directions for adding my son, despite some careful study of their FAQs. I spent some frustrating time with two different customer service folks today about sharing our gifted all digital access subscription. The bottom line given by the supervisor I spoke to is “sorry, you have no options, you can’t share a gifted all digital access account.” NYT will not permit any workarounds like remaking accounts or manually tweaking the settings of the gift account. When I pointed out that on the Times’ own subscription and product page the all digital access product is specifically noted as

    “New: Share your All Digital Access with a family member.”

    and that the description of the gifted All Digital Access subscription does not say that it does not come with the sharing option, the supervisor countered with “Well, it doesn’t say that it *does*, either.”

    I pressed the supervisor on the matter, after being told that they couldn’t do anything about allowing me to share the account in the manner they describe on the NYT subscription pages. My son *will* be able to share the account in 6 months time, when the gift subscription runs out and I (possibly) renew. At that moment, my account loses its gift flag, and will become shareable. So, sharing the gift subscription is not a technical impossibility, but rather a policy matter. The supervisor I spoke to implicitly acknowledged as much, but chided me for not understanding the economics of the situation. With respect, my concern is more with truthful representation of the product and how the product should/can be used, something I would have thought the NYT would be concerned about as well.

    The irony is that if the gift had not been a prearranged gift subscription, but rather a lump sum or use of the giver’s credit card to pay for a new regular account, that new subscription could have been shared and I wouldn’t be writing this account. Add the ‘invisible’ gift limitation irony to that of the utter wastefulness of the [print plus all digital access] option that is nevertheless the best price point. The supervisor, after pointing out that the error was the gift giver’s since the All Digital Access gift subscription does not explicit say that *it* can be shared, said that the only way that my son and I can share the account as the giver intended is to share the userID and password of the account. Interestingly, this advice is in direct conflict with the NYT digital subscription FAQ; the supervisor said that advice was there merely to help users avoid password change issues.

    All in all, a poor experience. According to the supervisor, I am the only person–yes, the only person–to ever take issue with their gift subscriptions and use of same. Personally, I see no reason to give anyone a NYT gift subscription, not with the invisible or unstated restrictions on gift subscriptions. Better to either axe All Digital Access gift subscriptions as a product category, or label that one product as restricted and not shareable.

  15. Just noticed something even weirder: the basic, lowest-cost digital subscription — which gives you access to the iPhone app but not the iPad app — includes access to the Election 2012 app as well. But the more expensive Tablet subscription does *not* include access to that app. Bonkers.

  16. This post is completely spot-on. The Times’s pricing strategy is needlessly complicated: why are there three separate packages, when most content providers are device agnostic? The pricing structure is also deliberately non-transparent: why is the price in 4 week increments when all other content providers price monthly or annually? It suggests that the Times has a limited view of its readers’ intelligence. I willingly pay for access to ft.com, wsj.com, and economist.com, but I resent the New York Times.

  17. Seriously, who reads the NYT anymore ?
    Why agonize about the failings of a dying newspaper ?

    Go read some quality material instead.

  18. I’m currently getting the weekend times and only reading it online. I’ve been meaning to change to a purely digital subscription but I can’t figure out the prices. I can’t figure out if I’m just paying for access to the android tablet app. I prefer nytimes.com/skimmer over the mobile interfaces.

  19. Great paper, horribly run business. (And sad to say, a great stockt to short for the past many years).
    IPad access is obscenely expensive. I love the NYT but, there is NO WAY I am going to pay those prices.
    No surprise to me that their digital subscriber numbers are disappointing.
    The wad of digital deserved to gt fired. Get someone, none, in charge there who has a clue.

  20. Route around the damaged process: I subscribe to Home Delivery Sat-Sun, which gets me the digital access. I then suspend HD for much of the year.

  21. The subscription options in-app on the iPad doesn’t include the 99 cent deal in the listings, and are 34.99 and $19.99 on the list price. The website says 99 cents / $15 or $20 or $35. I didn’t even see how to subscribe on the iPhone, just how to log in.

    If it was $10-20/mo for all digital access, nobody would be debating the paywall on this level. Maybe it’s just me, but I haven’t subscribed merely because I want it on all devices and it’s more expensive than most of my bills.

    $35/mo for me to read the longform stuff I get linked to and store in Instapaper is a lot for me wanting read while on the train on my iPhone or while on my couch from my iPad.

    I’d just like to see one big paper fast forward to where we are today and slap a $9.99/mo price tag on there, which I’d gladly pay for without thinking twice about if I really need it.

    Ok, maybe I’m just broke because I have an iPhone and iPad. It’s still a hefty price tag in this day and age of digital content.

    Then again, I don’t know what their subscription rates are since the paywall was put up, so maybe I’m just a member of the whiney vocal minority who fill up comment boxes at 11 p.m.

  22. “The total customer experience here is haphazard at best, and, at worst — I hate to say this because I am still friendly with many people at the company, but in truth there’s no way around it — it’s insulting.”

    You’re not the only one who’s insulted by the NYTimes penny pinchers these days:

    From the Guild to Sulzberger: “We have worked long and hard for this company and have given up pay to keep it solvent. Some of us have risked our lives for it. You have eloquently recognized and paid moving tribute to our work and devotion. The deep disconnect between those words and the demands of your negotiators have given rise to a sense of betrayal.”

    http://saveourtimes.com

  23. Sadly, all of the good (print) news organizations have this issue with the business side. At least the Economist and FT allow full digital access with one subscription, and tell you up front what the annual cost will be.

    $110/year for the digital Economist (website, iPhone, and iPad)? Sold! I hope that the NYT will come to its senses and figure out a simpler pricing structure. $120/year, or even $180/year, for digital only access would be an easy sell. (To me, at least.) Instead, I am subscribing to FT, planning to buy an Economist subscription in the new year, and skipping the NYT more and more.

  24. As soon as I saw the 99 cents for 8 weeks renewal offer, I knew that the digital subscription was going to be shoehorned into the print renewal offer tree which. All those print gimmicks are indeed insulting and seeing them applied to these products actually dissuaded me from digital renewal, as it means that fair, transparent pricing doesn’t exist. I’m glad I have waited, seeing the experience of the commenter above whose free digital access was cancelled early. They are training me and their other customers to treat their products with contempt and suspicion, which is a shame and bad business.

  25. I’m glad you wrote this. I’ve contemplated writing a similar piece on my own blog. I like the Times and want to support it, but, first, the digital subscription price is too high. And second, as you note, the customer service is terrible, going so far as to be anti-user in general. My first digital subscription with the Times I took under a promotional offer. I cancelled it in what I thought was in time, but I was charged the next month at full rate — close to $40. Apparently, they bill the following four weeks a few days before the preceding one ends, but nowhere on the site is it explained how many days this is. Thus, you are given no information as to when to cancel to avoid being charged. When I complained about this, I was told that “no refunds were available on digital subs.” I worked myself high enough up the chain there to get it reversed and then had to call two more times to actually get the money reapplied to my card.

    A couple of months later I tried again, and this time I cancelled in enough time. Once more I was charged for the next month. I was told by customer service that this was in error, and that the woman I spoke to improperly noted my request. This time it took five calls to get the charges reversed — and each time I had calls saying “no refunds are available for digital subscriptions.”

    I’ve been expecting them to get their customer service act in gear and to also moderate their pricing, which is crazy on the digital side. Like most people here, I’ve thought about doing the Weekender plan but I don’t want all that paper around the house.

    Oh well, my current subscription is about to end and now I’m being offered 16 weeks at 50% off… I’ll probably take it and hope that things are better in four months time.

  26. I just received a weird spam from the NY Times saying I recently requested to cancel my home delivery subscription (which I did NOT).

    The spam went on to remind me to keep in mind that when my delivery service ends, I will no longer have unlimited access to NYTimes.com and our NYTimes apps.

    They ask me to reconsider…

  27. @ Dave and @ John: I also received that email, and I’ve never had a home delivery subscription. The offer came to to the email address for an underwritten account I’ve had this past year, so perhaps the email was sent (in error) to all ‘expiring’ accounts.

  28. Yep, I just wanted to say, that NYT email – and the Times’ statement about it – pretty much confirms exactly how bogus their whole subscription system is. From the statement: “Others familiar with The Times’s technical operations said it was unclear whether it was spam or possibly an erroneous mass e-mail.” Khoi is totally right, in other words!

  29. Khoi, I’ve been saying the same thing from day one: home delivery of the physical paper is the best monetary deal. Here’s a scenario: have the physical paper delivered to the address of someone you know who prefers the physical paper to the web. Then use the digital access yourself exclusively. Basically 2 subscriptions for the price of one. I’m not a fan of debatable ethics or outright stealing, but with all the confusion (and the ability to access the website free of charge through various methods) I don’t feel guilty at all.

  30. According to Walter Isaacson (via Poynter), this is what Steve Jobs suggested to NYT execs:

    As part of that effort, Jobs dined with 50 top Times executives to show off the iPad and, as Isaacson put it, “find a modest price point for digital content that consumers would accept.” He said the Times knew how many readers would pay the highest price point (a print subscription), and how many would read for free online.

    “You should go after the midpoint, which is about 10 million digital subscribers,” [Jobs] told them. “And that means your digital subs should be very cheap and simple, one click and $5 a month at most.”

  31. I’ve wondered this since I saw the Times’ dynamic pricing….instead of paying extra for the Digital Access+iPad, couldn’t I just pay for the Digital Access+iPhone service and then visit nytimes.com via Safari on my iPad instead of using the iPad app? Is it that simple to save five bucks a month? I’ve always liked the website better than the iPad app anyway.

  32. I found it fairly easy to get digital subscription information when I subscribed for $0.99 for 8 weeks. I clicked through the e-mail notifying me of my expiring free subscription and was taken to http://nyti.ms/vUOxHX. It is also possible to get to the link from the upper right hand corner of the NY Times homepage whether logged in or not. Clicking on the see details link for each option brings up a pop up window with the features and pricing after the initial 8 weeks.

    It is true that the Times should have a simple matrix with the pricing and better tie in with print rates but I found it completely untrue that it was difficult and involved multiple log ins to find digital pricing.

  33. Although I started reading the 7-day Times at home ten years earlier, I’ve been buying it since 1950. Count the years. It’s our only “paper of record”, and I’d miss it badly. I recycle.

    The print edition seems fairly priced, and the digital is fine for catching up during the day. Google News gets more color.

    If you miss a delivery, go to “Customer Care” in the left column of the home page, and ask them to re-deliver, or give $ credit. They do – at least in NYC.

    Regards to all and Happy New York Times Year!