The New York Times Paywalls Its Beautiful Mobile Contribution to Democracy in 2012

The New York Times released a new iPhone app this afternoon and it looks great – if you’re a Times subscriber at $15 per month. Will a large number of people pay that much to access high quality content about the public interest in a mobile app? I’m not so sure they will. Maybe that doesn’t matter though.

The app is nicely designed and integrates a wide variety of features, some of which are available for free. It’s both cool and very frustrating. Why aren’t more apps like this? Why is the paper of record paywalling its best content about a subject of such great public importance?

I can respect a paywall in general. The Times paywall on the web is porous, it’s very easy to get around, and yet it’s working very well for many people and for the company. Half a million people are paying to access Times digital content so far. As the fabulous Felix Salmon, financial blogger at Reuters, puts it: “Paying for something you value, even when you don’t need to, is a mark of a civilized society.”

I can hear that – but there’s something that makes me feel uncomfortable about paywalling information about an election. It feels like something that oil barrons would do with secret dastardly newsletters they trade among themselves.

What’s Inside

What’s included in the app? Free users can access a selection of top election-related Times stories. “Six news stories for free,” is how Raju Narisetti, Managing Editor of the Washington Post, summarizes the whole app on Twitter. Each story is appended by related Twitter messages, which is a unique feature. I’d love to know how they figured out what tweets to put on those pages – it seems to be automated and of moderate relevance.

Free users can also navigate to the election coverage of other publications through the Times app. The Washington Post, WSJ, MSNBC, Politico, Fox News and others all have prominent links in the app. That’s a great move, even if it is very simple in execution. How many other major media outlets send their readers pro-actively to the content of competitors?

Unfortunately, that’s where the free content ends. Everything else requires that you pay for either a $15 monthly subscription to access the NYTimes.com web content, the basic smartphone apps and presumably this app. Or you can pay an extra $20 each month to access the iPad app too. I like the Times iPad app but I’ll read the WSJ or Al Jazeera or the Guardian or Flipboard or watch Newsy or read the Bloomberg app before I’m likely to pay $20 every month for the Times iPad app. Maybe I don’t know what I’m missing; I would hate it if the New York Times wasn’t around in 100 more years.

For those who do subscribe (and a lot of people do) other parts of the app are then unlocked. They include access to Times political blogs, an opinion section and a big election guide full of resources. Those include a Primary Calendar of the Republican nominating contests, a section of polls, updates on Republican candidates, stats by state and a calendar of debates. Finally, there’s a big selection of videos by the Times video crew. These are great videos, I’m sure, and I am a little jealous that I can’t watch them here.

So this is cool – and the participation of stats master Nate Silver of political research blog Five Thirty Eight is getting this thing closer to going over the line where I’d pay for it.

“But no interactivity?” asks Richard Robbins VP and Digital Strategist at the giant PR firm MWW Group, on Twitter. “Big miss. Suggestion for v2!!” Brooklyn designer Douglas Back asks on Twitter if there will be a web app version of the Election app content – and he probably wants it all for free, too!

You can’t please all of the people all of the time and sometimes you’ve got to focus on the people who are paying you. Given the topic of this app, I feel a little uncomfortable about it – but maybe I need to get over it.

At the very least, the publishing experiment with high quality coverage of important matters, on mobile, is worthy of commendation.

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