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In the magnificent romantic comedy-cum-fable of journalism “Broadcast News,” Albert Brooks’s character, a brilliant but socially challenged network television reporter named Aaron Altman, sneers at a moment when the news camera momentarily turns back to show a fellow reporter on screen. Sarcastically, he jokes, “Let’s never forget, we’re the real story, not them.”
For decades, serious journalists strove to be invisible, but that is perhaps changing now as news organizations look to find new ways to bind their dwindling audiences closer to their brands. At some publications, the emerging wisdom seems to be that if readers can be given a peek behind the curtain of the journalistic process, they will feel more compelled to pay for subscriptions, whether digital or print.
You can see this in The New York Times’ Times Insider, essentially a backstage look at the news organization’s operations and staff. A running blog with original content, Insider offers “interviews with Times reporters, on the ground, in the field and at home,” in depth looks at “how many of our most challenging and surprising stories came to be,” and “tip sheets” of news stories on the bubble, as curated by journalists.
I’m a digital subscriber to The New York Times but Times Insider is part of their Times Premier plan, so it’s only available to customers willing to spend several hundred dollars more per year. It will be interesting to see how the company will measure success here; Times Insider content doesn’t look particularly cheap to produce, while page views and engagement are unlikely to follow standard patterns given the smaller, rarefied customer base.
When it comes to experiments like this I typically favor digital media, but I wonder if The Times and The Sunday Times of London have placed a smarter bet with Byline, their new print product. Similar content, similar customer base; but instead of a blog Byline packages behind-the-scenes stories for their Times+ subscribers in a beautifully designed quarterly magazine.
I’ve long argued that “extras” like these do little to persuade people to pay for content, but it feels like what each of these projects is trying to do is to extract more value from people who would pay anyway. That’s where the news business stands today, apparently.
Given the choice between the two options, I’m not sure which I would choose. On the one hand, I would likely get more actual use out of the Times Insider model. On the other hand, I’m skeptical about how often I’d really access that content, and having a real physical object like Byline’s lavishly produced magazine mailed to me four times a year feels like it might be a good reminder of the value of a paid subscription. In either case, the existence of these two experiments will likely tell us how compelling stories about the journalists themselves really are.+