New York Times Nails Online News With Its Budget Puzzle

This morning, I closed the 2015 U.S. budget gap before I could finish my Clif Bar.

I did it by eliminating earmarks, cutting 250,000 government contractors, reducing nuclear arsenal and space spending, dramatically reducing the number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, returning estate taxes to Clinton-era levels and allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire.

This isn’t the start of my presidential campaign. This is courtesy of the New York Times. Think you can balance the budget? Check out Budget Puzzle, where “you’re in charge of the nation’s finances. Some of your options have more short-term savings and some have more long-term savings.” It’s the realest “game” you’ll ever play.

Here’s how my plan stacked up:

As I’ve said before, I’m a Democrat. (That means I love taxes.) Balancing this beast meant making a ton of spending cuts and avoiding tax hikes that would’ve impacted the budget much quicker, but would’ve left most of America begging I be tarred and feathered. My plan generated a $10 billion surplus, but it couldn’t cure the long-term gap which would peak in 2030. I felt immediate results were more important for position in the global economy and national morale.

Really, this shit is hard. I’m glad the New York Times gave me the opportunity, although it’s worth noting the Budget Puzzle is based on a dictatorship, not a democracy. I felt guilty with many of my selections, knowing few would be lucky to sputter through Congress without becoming a hallowed-out shell.

This is a salute to the New York Times, leading the way for interactive news websites.

Part of me wants to be bitter about the distressed newspaper industry. The Internet has murdered ad sales and subscriptions, which has resulted in more job cuts than new hires. I went to college with the intent of becoming a journalist. I, along with many of my classmates, looked on, hopelessly, as the newspaper industry all but shriveled up before our eyes. Some of my classmates found work at community newspapers, where furloughs and layoffs spread their offices like the common cold. Some gave up writing altogether. I started blogging — something which I enjoy more than I ever did news writing — and I found a job where I get to write, as well. I made out fine.

The traditionalist in me died a little this morning, though. The New York Times has proven online news can, in fact, be more informative than its paper-version.

The NYTimes.com is expected to switch over to a paywall system in January, leaving non-subscribers to limited access of the website. This is the pay model news websites should’ve gone by since day one, but I think the New York Times proves its value with interactive graphics like the Budget Puzzle, which can actively teach readers the intricacies of bigger stories and trends. I’d pay for stuff like this. I hope I’m not alone.

This morning, I eliminated tax loopholes and created a carbon tax before my coffee was ready.  I prioritized the 2015 budget over the 2030 budget and pondered raising the Social Security age limit to 68. (Hey, life expectancy keeps increasing!) This puzzle with its accompanying story ran over the weekend, but this morning, I had one of the best newspaper-reading experiences of my life.

And I did it online.

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NY Times Steps Up to the Plate

You might not like it, but The New York Times is close to charging readers for online content, according to the Wall Street Journal. It’s a gutsy move by the country’s most highly regarded newspaper, but it could mark the end of a business model that’s thrown the newspaper industry into major turmoil over the past decade.

I honestly believe I would have a job at a newspaper right now if no one had ever posted free content online. And while the newspaper industry’s problems have become much more complex, it doesn’t take a genius to point out where the trouble began:

  • First, newspapers began to publish their content online for free. The hope was this would increase readership, especially outside of local markets. (Because of this, I still get to read the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Mankato Free Press and Minneapolis Star Tribune daily.)
  • Newspapers expected online advertising revenue to balance the loss of subscribers who would choose to read online content exclusively. Online advertising would create a second revenue stream with even more earning ability than print.
  • But, online advertising was never as lucrative as expected. This led to tightened budgets, job cuts, hiring freezes, and in many cases, bankruptcy filings.

The past can’t be changed, and The New York Times knows this. That doesn’t necessarily mean the way things were is th way they have to be. They’ve done their due diligence, which is more than anyone can say for the first newspapers to put their content online for free. I’m hoping this crossover is extremely successful, not only as a journalist but as an American who believes in the value of newspapers.

If paying for online news content feels wrong to you, consider what it can do for the industry. This will stabilize newsrooms, add jobs, allow larger budgets which can be invested in reporting and adding resources. Consider the importance of newspapers. Who else captures the discourse of a community? Who else informs us on local issues? Who else accepts letters to express concern or contentment?

There may be nothing more difficult in a capitalist society than charging for something that’s always been free. That’s said, if your local newspaper started charging for access to its Web site, would you pay up?