Media Model Threats: The New York Times vs. Grand Central Terminal


Digital is hardly the only disruption threatening media business models. So too is…reclycling?

Recently I was privileged to take a behind-the-scenes tour of Grand Central Terminal, which this year is celebrating its centenary. In addition to many rare and privileged experiences (Deep in the basement, New York’s oldest computer dating from 1911! Popping open the VI of the famed Tiffany clock and sticking my head out over Park Avenue!), our scarily knowledgeable guide shared an interesting fact about the threat to print publishing posed by the paper recyling bins installed in the terminal in 1990.

On Day One of the recycling program, the new bins collected an astonishing five tons of (mostly) newspapers discarded by commuters, making it America’s largest recycling plant overnight. However the program had done its homework, and knew six tons of paper waste passed through the station daily. So where was the missing ton of newsprint?

Left on the trains? No, they looked. Thrown out with the regular trash? Not there, either. Closer scrutiny was called for, and the case was soon cracked. Commuters (including many affluent ones sporting mink coats and Armani suits, noted our guide) were fishing papers out of the newly installed recycling bins to “recycle” the papers themselves. The terminal, noting a trend, issued a press release. The story was covered on the evening news.

The next morning, the phones at Grand Central Terminal were ringing off the hook. The New York Times was enraged to learn that terminal’s recycling program was undercutting newsstand sales.

The result? Since 2001, the Times has been paying a pretty penny for a contract that reportedly lasts into perpetuity to maintain the on site recycling bins — bins that are taller and deeper than any commuter could ever hope to snag a discarded paper out of.

Problem Solved?

Perhaps the Times has gained newsstand sales as a result of this measure, but it’s one that calls into question the nature of the newspaper and magazine business. Does the Times want to sell news – or papers? The two are no longer intrinsically bound. Digital-only subscriptions are an increasingly important part of the Grey Lady’s revenue model.

But not important enough. So long as publishing – and ad rates – are dictated by outmoded print circulation numbers, publishers will push papers harder than they will content.

Case in point: After acquiring an iPad, I phoned the New Yorker to request my longstanding subscription be switched to digital only. Heck, I travel too much to even collect the snail mail edition from the mailbox.

Condé Nast was more than happy to comply, a rep informed me. All I had to do to secure a digital-only subscription to the magazine was agree to pay double – double – the annual subscription rate for the print/digital bundle.

Recycling indeed.

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