By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Quick thoughts on the Times’ pay-wall plan

The New York Times today made an important announcement that we will no doubt pick over closely in the weeks and months ahead. According to a memo from Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and president Janet Robinson, the paper will start charging for Web content in 2011.

Over the past year or two, it has become increasingly clear that advertising may never fully support the infrastructure of large newspaper Web sites. With huge chunks of classified advertising lost to Craigslist and with display advertising undermined by the decline of once-vibrant downtowns, newspaper executives have been struggling with ideas to persuade readers to pick up a larger share of the tab.

The Times’ plan is fairly nuanced, and parallels proposals being discussed by Steven Brill, the founder of Journalism Online. You would be allowed to access a certain number of articles per month (perhaps five or 10) for free. After that, you would have to pay. Access to the Web site would remain free for subscribers to the print edition.

Charging for Web-site access undermines the sharing culture of the Web, which is what gives it its value. Still, the Times’ plan is relatively benign. Bloggers who regularly link to and excerpt Times content will have the choice of paying up or going elsewhere. Blog readers will be able to click on a modest number of Times links for free.

Several years ago the Times tried charging for its opinion columnists and certain online-only features. The experiment was not a failure, but Sulzberger and company concluded they could earn more advertising revenue by returning to free access. The wheel turns, and it keeps turning.

My early prediction is that the Times’ metered-access plan will be no more than a limited success, and not easily emulated by other papers. The Times remains the gold standard of mainstream journalism, and a lot of people will be willing to pay for it. By contrast, a good regional paper like the Boston Globe must compete with a wide array of other local media. If the Web sites of local newspapers and radio and television stations remain free, readers may find that they’re not willing to pay for the Globe’s admittedly superior content.

The most promising route for newspapers to take is to charge for convenience (print, e-readers and smartphone editions) and community (special premium online content, member discounts, discussion forums and the like). Charging for basic Web access has proved to be a losing proposition in the past, and that’s likely to continue.

But it’s been clear for some months now that we were about to embark on another experiment in charging for Web content. At least it sounds like the Times is going about it the right way.

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  1. Mike F

    I think this is a terrible idea. With the myriad of emerging reading and content distribution technologies, now is the time to become the news source of habit (to capture the force of inertia, if you will,) but instead the Times is going to actively drive readers away. Maybe they simply can’t afford to wait, but I think they’re passing up a future boon for a (relatively) quick fix and some economic stability. I don’t know if they’re trying to sell themselves, the public, or advertisers with the statement, but the idea that the move “allows to remain a vibrant part of the search-driven Web” seems ridiculous to me. I think the likely result is that the Times will become increasingly irrelevant to large scale audiences and become more of a niche service, like a cross between The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker.

  2. Don Topaz

    In a typical week, I’ll read articles from maybe 30-50 different newspapers, rarely reading more than 4 or 5 articles from any one paper. Depends a lot on what’s happening where — I’ll look for a source to give me a good local angle or info that I wouldn’t find in an AP story. I might pay an access fee for the NY Times, depending on what else might be available. I’d be less likely to pay for the Globe — too many other reasonable (and free) sources for comparable info.

    But what I’d certainly support is some type of consortium among some very, very large number of newspapers. My monthly access fee would be based on the number of articles that I’d prepay to read, and my single account would cover the NY Times, the Globe, the Des Moines Register, the Lubbock Blubberer, and any other rag that’s in the consortium. The consortium can figure out on its own how to distribute the income and manage the business side.

  3. Nial Liszt

    Globe to begin charging for selected online features. Highly respected polling data to be offered in test with partner Outlier Associates.

  4. rozzie02131

    They don’t seem to be very confident of their plans if they give people 14 months notice. When the Times and the Globe raised their home delivery prices through the roof, they gave people about a week’s notice.

  5. Newshound

    There may be free sites that are advertising based which will most likely completely consume the New York Times Company.

    There is a theory we all seek our level of incompetence. This may be the case here and the same with Rupert. Think about America’s most successful companies such as Bethlehem Steel, Sears, Singer, General Motors, Woolworth, AOL and the list goes on and on. Twenty percent of all businesses fail each year. General Motors, Woolworth, etc. within the last 15 years were on the Dow 30.

    Bethlehem Steel’s president commented that his salesmen didn’t sell steel, “they allocated it.” Think of the bold, successful businesses we remember in Massachusetts such as Wang, Digital, CMGI, Polaroid and I could go on and on with a list but there may not be enough room on the Internet to list them all.

    The big and mighty often fail. The future is likely to belong to someone about 20 who, much to his or her parents’ displeasure will drop out of Harvard or MIT totally distracted with ideas not unlike Edwin Land, Michael Dell, William Gates, etc.

    The New York Times management, and that of Rupert, too, is so unlike that of Yahoo, Google, or the genius of Apple’s Steve Jobs – one of the greatest designers, marketers, artists, technicians, innovators and business leaders of our times.

    And the Times management is going to outsmart new talent coming aboard in the form of Sergy Brin, Bill Gates, etc. I have my doubts. Charging for the Internet is another nail or two in the coffin, just like loosing classified by charging too much, and then loosing readership because they’re are fewer classified ads – it’s a vicious downward spriral that eventually leads to failure.

    In the media business readership and viewership is everything.

  6. O-FISH-L

    Dan, speaking of the Times/Globe, do mass cancellations of subscriptions really happen after an event like the recent election?

    Trolling the comment boards and speaking to folks at the polls and at the Park Plaza last night, I got the impression that the Globe was badly damaged by the endorsement of Coakley, the last ditch column by Joan Vennochi alleging, without proof, bullying by Brown supporters and worst of all the “poll” showing Coakley leading by 15% a little more than a week ago.

    One person suggested a loss of something like 50,000 subscribers because of the Globe’s biased coverage. Just wondering if that really happens. FWIW, I disagreed with the editorial board and many of the columns, but thought the hard news coverage of the race, sans the poll, was OK.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Fish: I can’t imagine mass cancellations happening. If that were the case, the Herald would have gone out of business after its faulty report on the Patriots’ videotaping before the last Super Bowl. There were calls for a boycott and all kinds of things. Nothing happened.

      Not sure what you mean by “worst of all.” That was a UNH Survey Center poll the Globe paid for, not a Globe poll. The Survey Center is a highly respected outfit. If you think they’d sell their credibility, then you really are letting yourself be blinded by your dislike of the Globe. What do you think it would do to the Survey Center’s reputation and ability to attract future clients if professionals in the business believed they’d come up with whatever findings you wanted?

      If you check the dates, you’ll see the UNH poll was conducted just a bit too early. It showed Coakley with a 15-point lead at the same time that Rasmussen was reporting 9. Rasmussen did not ask about Joe Kennedy (“other candidates” got one percent). and UNH did, with Kennedy getting 5 or 6 percent. That was the whole difference right there. The problem is that voters inclined to support a minor candidate will switch if the race between the two major candidates tightens up.

      I do think Globe editors failed to recognize the problems created by the UNH poll, or if they did, they didn’t do much about it. I’d have enlisted UNH for one last poll the weekend before the election. Instead, they let their 15-point bulge hang out there. Then again, polling is (1) expensive and (2) ultimately worthless. So perhaps the Globe’s resources were better spent elsewhere.

  7. O-FISH-L

    Dan, great analysis. Thanks. You’re the only one who has made sense of the Globe poll. It’s not just Howie Carr calling it “phony baloney” so they should have someone defending it. Even if there was nothing sinister, it looks bad for the Globe.

  8. Al

    No mass cancellations after an event like this. People who were inclined to believe the Brown campaign, were already non readers. Did the Herald suffer mass defections after the last presidential election cycle? I don’t think so, either.

  9. Nial Liszt

    It was not just the horse race. All the internals completely flipped in a week:

    “Coakley is seen as strongest on health care”

    “She’s simply better known and better liked than Brown,”

    “Coakley is seen as the candidate best able to handle almost every issue voters were asked about”

    “Her likability has also proved quite durable, with 61 percent of respondents having a favorable view of her”

    “Health care, the economy, and taxes and spending are the most important issues for voters, who trust Coakley more to handle every one”

    “Even on taxes and spending – which have been central to Brown’s campaign – 42 percent of voters said they trust Coakley, compared with 37 percent for Brown.”

    “The war in Afghanistan was the best issue for Brown, with 34 percent saying they trust him, compared with 35 percent for Coakley.”

    The Globe poll is released and the Patriots are eliminated from the playoffs nine days before the election. Brown candidacy starts to catch on fire. Did the Pats losing to Baltimore allow Brown to become the “next thing” to a number of his eventual voters, who would have been otherwise occupied, leading up to a game in San Diego two days before the election?

  10. Mike from Norwell

    Dan, any understanding of how the mechanics would work? From what I gather, you would get limited access over a period of time; after you reach a certain threshold the meter would kick in. So I would conjecture that you would have to register for the site again and provide credit card info (or some sort of payment method) with the conditional proviso that at some undetermined threshold you would start being billed?

    I don’t know about you, but I either want to pay for something outright (as I do with the WSJ) knowing my upfront charges, or not register. I don’t know how this is such a great model. I for one wouldn’t want to be leaving an open ended credit card on file for arbitrary charges. Or am I missing something?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike from Norwell: It sounds as though the Times has not worked out the details yet, and that quite a bit of programming will be involved. I expect the Times will at least make an effort to provide a seamless experience. And I’m sure payment up front in return for not having to deal with the hassle will be part of the package. Management has already said home-delivery customers will be included. The question is whether that will also cover Sunday-only, Times Reader and Kindle customers.

  11. Mike from Norwell

    Dan, not quite sure how this model would work. I either want to know what I’m charged upfront or I won’t go there at all. I’m not putting conditional billing info in somebody’s hands (not sure if you’ve had the Apple experience with giving your kid an iTouch – having a corporation requiring you to provide credit card info for your kids to run rampant buying apps isn’t user friendly to say the least – Steve Jobs is the true Satan, not Gates). The mechanics of what they’re trying to accomplish don’t make sense. Either you’re going to be all in as a NYT subscriber, or you’re going to say forget it, I’m not going to register or visit your site with the publisher arbitrarily billing me when I reach a certain threshold of visits. I thought the NYSelect (and the Herald’s model of the premium charge for columnists) is the better way to go. At least you are opting in for the charges, rather than giving carte blanche permission to bill as they see fit.

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