The NYT’s paywall

By Felix Salmon
January 20, 2010
It's official: the NYT is putting up an FT-style paywall; the paper's Richard Pérez-Peña fills in a few of the gaps.

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It’s official: the NYT is putting up an FT-style paywall; the paper’s Richard Pérez-Peña fills in a few of the gaps.

Starting in early 2011, visitors to NYTimes.com will get a certain number of articles free every month before being asked to pay a flat fee for unlimited access. Subscribers to the newspaper’s print edition will receive full access to the site.

The NYT has decided to take a full year to make sure it gets the technology right: it certainly doesn’t want to run into the issues it faced during the TimesSelect fiasco, where its subscription database was separate from its online-user registry, making it hard to give free access to newspaper subscribers.

I suspect that what’s going to happen now is that as the moment of truth approaches, bloggers will increasingly search around for the NYT’s replacement as online paper of record: the way that blogs work is that they’re backed up by links to reliable sources, and a link is worthless if the person clicking on it risks running straight into a paywall, unable to read the information in question. The NYT’s journalism might well continue to be reliable, but its website won’t be, any more. (For the record: I feel very comfortable in saying that Reuters stories are just as reliable as those of the NYT, if not more so, and that if a link to a story works for you, it will work identically for anybody else in the world.)

The NYT story makes it clear that the only thing which seems to matter here is money, as opposed to brand value:

The approach the company took is “the one that after much research and study we determined has the most upside in both” subscriptions and advertising, Mr. Nisenholtz said. “We’re trying to maximize revenue. We’re not saying we want to put this revenue stream above that revenue stream. The goal is to maximize both revenue streams in combination.”

This is, of course, exactly the approach that the NYT’s management would take if it felt that it was managing a company in terminal decline, and wanted to squeeze as many dollars out of it as possible before it dies. Successful media companies go after audience first, and then watch revenues follow; failing ones alienate their audience in an attempt to maximize short-term revenues.

It’s worth noting too that this move comes in the wake of the botched dismantling of the International Herald Tribune’s website, and its reincarnation as the New York Times Global Edition. The NYT here seems to be voluntarily giving up on all its readers outside the US, who can’t be reasonably expected to have the ability or inclination to pay for web access. It had the opportunity to be a global newspaper, leveraging both the NYT and the IHT brands, and has now thrown that away for the sake of short-term revenues.

As for the question of the NYT’s ability to get this transition right, technically speaking, I’m not optimistic. The NYT website is gorgeously designed, and easy to navigate: the company’s web team is strong. But as the IHT and TimesSelect messes showed, the NYT is less good at making big changes to site architecture, and it’s far from clear why they’ve decided to go their own way, rather than sign on with Journalism Online, especially since the NYT internal memo says that they will “continue to discuss alternatives with a broad range of prospective collaborators with regard to bundled offers and other aggregation opportunities,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.

The wishful thinking in that memo makes it clear just how desperate the NYT seems to be:

In 2010 we will continue initiatives such as Times Open, Times Topics and our work to develop more active communities and more fully integrate the real-time Web. We will continue to develop new online products and offerings as part of our effort to enhance the user experience for our readers and advertisers.

Our strategy is to build the metered model while we remain focused on making NYTimes.com more compelling, interactive and entertaining, providing many more reasons for online audiences to visit our site and stay longer. In the weeks ahead, we will be adding resources to achieve these critically important goals.

Needless to say, it’s almost impossible to build “active communities” behind a paywall. And no one is going to pay an online subscription fee just because there’s a beefed-up Times Topics section. In fact, the whole concept behind Times Topics is being broken by this paywall: they’re meant to be a landing page for people searching for information on a certain subject, linking to many NYT articles on that subject. But now those searchers won’t be able to read those articles, unless they’re already subscribers. As such, a project which was meant to bring nytimes.com into the same space as Wikipedia will now become largely irrelevant.

There’s also no mention of what’s going to happen to the NYT’s many blogs, and on this front I think no news is bad news and that they, too, will be part of the metered system. Suffice to say that the number of successful blogs behind a paywall is, at present, exactly zero.

All in all, this is a sad day for online journalism and the open web, and from here on in I’m going to be linking less to NYT content; if I do link, I’m going to quote its articles at greater length. I don’t want my future readers, once the paywall is up, to be incapable of of understanding what I’m talking about unless they cough up serious money to the NYT.

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