The New York Times Ethical Dilemma

(Image courtesy The Emptiness)

I love the New York Times “Ethicist” column, but this past weekend they ran a question that brings up many ethical dilemmas, including a conflict of interest for the Grey Lady herself.

First, the question:

I’m a 24-year-old freelance journalist who’s still somewhat dependent on my parents. And I’m on dozens of times a day. My parents are print subscribers and thus have access beyond the pay wall. Need I buy my own subscription? Also, if I buy online access, can I share the password with my live-in girlfriend, even if I move to New York for the summer? What about our other housemates? KEVIN CHARLES REDMON, MINNEAPOLIS

So there’s the ethical dilemma, and you can clearly see the NYT has a conflict of interest in answering. They don’t want to encourage people to game the system, but they owe this guy a practical and ethical answer … and in my opinion they didn’t deliver.

First, let me give my viewpoint on this. Admittedly, I have a slight conflict of interest too, because I share a Wall Street Journal subscription with my father. Our deal is a bit more black and white, though, because he doesn’t read the WSJ online and I don’t read it in paper form. So essentially we’re just splitting both halves of a legitimate subscription. To me, there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s like buying a McDonald’s combo meal and splitting it with a friend who only eats fries while you only eat burgers.

I also look at it from a household standpoint. Anything that enters my house is fair game, in that if I have a subscription to the New York Times, then I don’t expect anyone to flip out if I let Sarah read it without her own subscription. Practically speaking, aside from the portability and lack of smudgy fingerprints, it’s the same paper, so if I’d share the physical version it’s not outside the realm of ethics (IMO) to share the web version as well.

So far I’m not totally off from the New York Times viewpoint. However, this next part bothered me:

Many stores make it easy to just “borrow” an expensive item, use it for a few weeks, then return it for a full refund. Easy but not ethical, since doing so clearly violates the spirit of the return policy. It’s the same with circumventing the Times pay wall: however you rationalize it, it’s stealing, a little. If everyone opted to set his own pricing strategy, The Times would have to offer less free content. Then it would have to offer less content period. And after that?

It’s not that they’re not right…it’s that they shroud the whole argument in this specter of “If you don’t go out and buy a subscription RIGHT NOW the Times will go under!” Kind of dirty pool, especially when they’re the ones who left the metaphorical fence open. Are people going to pool together and share NYT subscriptions? A few, maybe. But I like my friends a lot, and we’ll often cover each other for dinners and such, but I don’t have any desire to subsidize their reading habits, nor do I desire to either constantly chase them down for their portion of a monthly subscription.

So, realistically, who’s splitting a NYT subscription? People who live in one household and share expenses, and the occasional freeloader? It doesn’t seem likely that people are going to form groups for the sole purpose of saving money on reading the online paper. Yes, it’s ethically wrong to play “set your own prices”, but realistically, it’s somewhat complicated to actually do that…so the advice comes off as less “here’s the ethical and realistic answer” and more “how do we answer this in a way that covers our own interests.”

What do you think? Is it ethical to share a subscription? Is there a practical line between theoretical ethics and real-world issues? Am I being too hard on the NYT, or did they not properly answer given the huge conflict of interest? Share your comments below!

Via The New York Times Ethicist Column

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