Does content want to be free? That question about the basic economic model of Internet publishing has tormented journalism for years now. And if you read the media about media, we’re due for another turn in this great debate. The New York Times will soon start charging for online access. Conde Nast hopes the seductive powers of the iPad will revivify the circulation of its glossies, gifting them a new platform for charging readers.
Recently we’ve been mulling this same basic strategic tact, and, in fact, it has a long history at TNR. For about the last seven years, we’ve offered digital subscriptions—and, at varying times, housed significant swaths of our content behind a pay wall. In recent years, however, we have removed most of those obstacles, opening our articles to non-subscribers. The ethos of the blogosphere is, after all, wonderfully democratic. What writer or editor doesn’t want her work read and debated as widely as possible? For a little magazine like ours, the Internet has extended our reach far beyond anything reasonably achievable in the old era when we relied solely on the postal service and newsstands as intermediaries for distributing our magazine. There’s an old joke from the sixties that TNR subscribers couldn’t fill the Ole Miss football stadium. But thanks to the web, our weekly readers would now fill those stands several times over.
Yet for all the advantages that this free distribution offers, there are inherent problems with it. There is, of course, something somewhat arbitrary about giving away our journalism online, when we charge our readers for it in print. Yes, the web eliminates many production costs—there are no dead trees, printing presses, and so on. But that only removes a fraction of the dollars that go into making our magazine.
And there’s also a deeper philosophical question: We charge our subscribers for our print journalism, because these are pieces that often require many months of reporting, writing, and editing. This style of journalism hasn’t exactly flourished in recent years, but it is at the core of our enterprise—and the reason many of us work at TNR. If we are so willing to place a price tag on such journalism in print, then why would we give it away in some other medium?
We don’t have a good answer to that question. That’s the reason that we’re introducing the TNR Society. To read our “premium” content—namely, our print pieces and the bulk of our 96 years of archives—you’ll need a subscription. (You’ll know that an article on the homepage requires a subscription by the little TNR ship next to it.) Click here for a more detailed account of the deals we’re offering and how this works.
And click here to subscribe.
I don’t want to overstate these changes. Plenty on the TNR website will remain gratis. In fact, the TNR Society won’t affect the bulk of what we produce on any given day. All visitors to TNR will have unfettered access to the entirety of our blogs and our web-only columns, as well as The Book. Inevitably, there will be kinks in our transition to this new plan—we know ourselves well—and we’ll surely continue to experiment and tweak the way this all works. But our commitment to long-form magazine journalism is deep and unchanging. We hope you view this change the same way we do: as an affirmation of that commitment, regardless of the medium in which we publish.
Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic.