Conventional wisdom has always been that if you give someone something for nothing, they’ll value it accordingly. But my morning interlude with New York’s new freesheets provides contrary food for thought.

One of those New York moments that give me a regular spinal tingle is when I’m on my way to work and pass though a gaggle of newspaper sellers. (Actually, to those South Africans out there, the call of someone yelling “Ar-gus! Ar-gus!” in Cape Town would be far more compelling anyday. However.)

Multiple opportunities to linger among the news-busking mob present themselves on my morning commute: at the entrance to the subway station on my block; at any exit from Grand Central Station; on various street corners on the five-block stroll to the office.

In recent months, vendors of daily morning newspapers like the New York Times, Daily News and New York Post have had to contend with two newcomers, both freesheets, namely amNewYork and metro.

It’s been interesting to see the psychology and physical co-location of both sets of purveyors. The established vendos jealously guarding their established spots, while freesheet distributors move around the sidewalks around exits and entrances.

And it’s been interesting to note the reactions of the non-paying readers. Only a proportion of commuters pick up or accept the free paper, they tend to take a cursory read and often you’ll see discarded papers that look fairly pristine. All this makes one wonder what value if any commuting readers are placing on these papers.

On the way to and back from gym this morning I witnessed a telling series of interactions. A vendor for a fairly recently introduced daily (Spring 2002), the New York Sun, was offering papers for sale on a Chelsea corner. This was a new spot for him and his 50 cent product.

Numerous passersby grabbed a paper off his neatly stacked piles and had to be chased after to cough up the coverprice. Most were astonished and then apologetic. Almost all handed the paper back and weren’t prepared to fork over two quarters for the read.

Some passersby got very angry, throwing their copies on to the street or sidewalk. I witnessed two earsplitting altercations with one man shouting that he “get my news for free! I don’t have to pay for it and you shouldn’t try to make me pay for it!” and another, some 30 minutes later, lecturing the seller about why “we don’t pay for newspapers anymore.”

In an ironic result, some commuters have come to clearly value what they’re getting for free, to the extent that they feel inspired to extend the pricing model to morning newspapers in general. I wonder what the New York Times would have to say?



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