Latest Attempt by NYT to Erect Paywall Unlikely to Succeed

Last Updated Oct 21, 2009 7:09 PM EDT

That little survey The New York Times is circulating among its paid subscribers to determine how they would react to a new paid model for its online content contains some intriguing questions. I've been holding back posting about it for a few days, because I did not trust my initial impulse ("This is just another bad idea.").
First, here, according to Editor'sWeblog.org and Poynter.org, is how the choices given to respondents to the survey are worded:
  • I think it is wrong for The New York Times to charge anyone for access to nytimes.com.
  • I would pay for access to nytimes.com because it offers more than The New York Times print newspaper.
  • I think that as long as subscribers get a discount, charging them for access to nytimes.com is fair.
  • I would pay for access to nytimes.com because it offers valuable content and features I can't get anywhere else.
  • I would gladly pay for access to nytimes.com in order to support the Times' quality journalism.
Respondents can choose to respond along a range of options from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." The basic plan, according to PaidContent and others, is to charge $5/month for access to all of The Times' online content, perhaps discounted to $2.50/month for print subscribers.

And, again, it is the newspaper's print subscribers who are being surveyed -- or at least some of them. This group is apparently viewed internally as the best source of additional revenue for The Times, when you consider they recently were hit with a significant subscription fee increase.
However, the larger business question facing a newspaper company like The Times is how will charging for access affect the behavior of non-subscribers. Most available evidence suggests that erecting a paywall of $60/year will dramatically reduce traffic to a site.

Web-savvy visitors will probably still get around the pay wall via search engine links to headlines that display the entire content, anyway, as is the case now for free access to the Wall Street Journal's online content -- but that is probably still a fairly small segment of the overall market.

International traffic may essentially dry up. Overall traffic growth itself may cease. What would remain would be a walled garden, perhaps more nicely watered and fertilized -- for a while. The company might forestall implementing painful reductions to its entrenched cost structure -- for a while.

I hope The Times chooses to publish the actual results of its survey, but I doubt it will. (Maybe Jennifer 8. Lee can be allowed to Twitter it?) Meanwhile, at least one industry analyst is advising clients to take the roughly 70 cents on the dollar available today on the company's debt that comes due in 2015.

"Declining revenue and margins, weak cash flow, and escalating leverage lead us to a sell recommendation on the 2015 issue at a price of 70," wrote David Novosel of GimmeCredit yesterday.

That is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the company's longer-term viability, is it?

Now, I've had time to reconsider my initial conclusion about the survey, I'm supportive of it because it's almost always good to ask questions like these ones. What is more important, ultimately, is to take careful note of the range of answers.

In that vein, I'll hazard a prediction that this particular pay model will not be implemented anytime soon.

Some of our recent Bnet Industries coverage of The New York Times:
July 9 Compete: Twitter.com Now 1.5X as Big as NYTimes.com
July 1 A Physicist Explains How Online is Killing Newspapers
June 30 AdAge: Two Years of Life (at least) for The Times
June 11 Comedy Central and the New York Times Collide and it's a Train Wreck
June 11 How The Times Bested The Daily Show (A Contrarian View)
June 9 The New York Times' REALLY Big Ad
June 9 What Does the NY Times Want From Boston?
June 2 Print Media Online: NYT is the Leader
May 27 Creditor Slim Expects NYT Print Version To Disappear, etc.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.