My dad was born with the unfortunate circumstance of being a Valentine’s baby. Instead of receiving birthday gifts, he’s been expected to deliver a basket of roses every year. I pity his situation.
This year, though, our family was able to grab him a gift. It’s been a long time since we were able to get him something he enjoyed for his birthday. When the good was delivered, however, the only person hovering overtop of the gift was me.
We bought my dad a curated book of major New York Times front pages from 1851–2013. I scoured the book for three hours this evening. I marvelled at incredible cover stories like the Apollo 11 landing and the September 12, 2001 edition. It's an incredible way to look through history and witness the unfolding of events.
Flipping through each cover page revealed the aspects of the New York Times that have never changed. It turns out most of the New York Times has never changed. Design, fonts and branding have changed only slightly over the last 162 years.
Except for its constant rise in price. Its price has changed dramatically.
I’ll start this study by laying out a few of the book’s research limitations. First, I have used dates and prices from the book — and only the book — my dad was given for his birthday. This means dates of price changes will not be exact. However, it does make this a primary research study.
Second, Sunday editions of the New York Times have always been more expensive. The “Rag Paper Edition” published in 1953 cost buyers $0.75 despite regular editions selling for $0.20 in that period. There are occasional spikes in prices, specifically on Sundays, that I have chosen to eliminate for the sake of consistency.
Now, the task at hand.
This chart represents the dates and prices found in the New York Times Front Pages: 1851–2013 book:
Evidently, the exponential rise in price begins in the 1950s and drastically climbs until today.
Adding a line that represents those prices adjusted for inflation gives very much the same story:
After seeing these graphics, I couldn’t help but be astonished at the cost of news. There are thousands of reasons why the real cost of the New York Times has increased in the last 40 years and they all synthesize to create the Times’ economic marketing environment. Is this a fault of the Times? Or is this the reality of global connectivity? I think these questions are more suited to be answered in a doctoral thesis than by my lowly publishing skills.
But I believe it's unmistakeably clear: the creation of innovations, such as the open Internet, have had a revolutionary impact on journalism. Any connected human being can gain access to commentary on world events and they can gain that access for a very small cost.
The credibility of that commentary is where the dollar value lies. Publications like The Information have reacted to this newly shaped industry and offered customers informative, specialized, and insightful journalism for a substantial cost. The Times has also priced itself accordingly.
In fact, I think the graphics you see above are a reflection of a changing strategy as opposed to a reaction to decreased demand. Publications like The Information and the Times have priced themselves more like luxury goods: goods that have more than proportional increase in demand as income rises. A luxury good is also highly sensitive to the amount of discretionary income in its market. Elasticity — more discretionary income equates to more consumption of luxury goods — is high for publications with a high cost barrier to consumption. The Information and the Times, based on the above charts, appear to focus more directly on a smaller target market and have priced themselves appropriately.
This is great news for the best journalists out there — the best journalists will be paid top dollar for their insight and expertise, just like any other industry.
But I think it’s overall bad news for everyone else. Spreading human knowledge through the written word has taken place since time immemorial. Today, the only thing spread is uneducated, biased and blasphemous commentary on useless events. The Times has always offered some of the best journalism in the world and it is being offered to a smaller and smaller group of people.
This entire discussion predicates on the fact that the New York Times was priced correctly from the start. If the real cost of the New York Times created too much value for its price in the 1950s, then the increase in price today merely corrects the original mistake. On the other hand, if it was appropriately priced in decades past, today’s prices are exponentially higher.
At this point in time, I’ll stick to Twitter and my trusty RSS feed. I’ll read my free articles of the Times and leave the specialized journalism to a cheaper source. At least until I can rightfully purchase those luxury goods.
The biggest change throughout that time frame was the change from “The New York Daily Times” to “The New York Times”. ↩
I also chose to use the American CPI to measure inflation as the New York Times is sold in American dollars. This seems like an obvious decision, but my Canadian pride is especially strong during the Olympic Winter Games. ↩