The NYT’s blogs are set to be paywalled

By Felix Salmon
February 19, 2010

Arthur Sulzberger, Janet Robinson, and Martin Nisenholtz of the NYT all took the opportunity of hosting today’s PaidContent conference to talk at length about their paywall plans. Which makes it all the more surprising that their message was so garbled: when they weren’t simply refusing to say anything at all, they were giving three conflicting answers to the same question.

Nisenholtz did say quite clearly that he expected ad revenue to go up rather than down, which implied to me that that paywall was going to be pretty porous. And Sulzberger said that “we are not trying to eliminate ourselves from the digital ecosystem”. But when I asked about specifics, it all got rather messy. It started when I asked whether the NYT’s own blogs would be counted towards the quota, and Nisenholtz replied that “our intention is to keep blogs behind the wall”.

That shocked me: blogs rely on loyal readers who come back to read them often. But few blog readers are loyal enough to pay for the privilege of reading that blog. And if you’re someone who participates regularly in the Freakonomics comments section, for instance, you’re going to be very annoyed if you’re forced to buy a subscription to the entire nytimes.com site in order to do so.

My guess is that if Nisenholtz does this, a lot of the branded blogs on nytimes.com, including both Freakonomics and Paul Krugman, will simply leave and set (back) up on their own. It’s possible that the NYT digital team could quietly exempt those blogs from the meter, but it’s important with any system like this to be transparent about which pages count and which don’t, and carving out exceptions could quickly make things far too complicated to be easily comprehensible.

The moderator, Staci Kramer, then asked Nisenholtz whether that meant there wasn’t something very weird going on as a result: that if you follow a link to a NYT story from a NYT blog, then that counts towards your quota, while if you follow a link to a NYT story from any other blog, then it doesn’t. After all, Nisenholtz is on the record as saying that “if you are coming to NYTimes.com from another Web site and it brings you to our site to view an article, you will have access to that article and it will not count toward your allotment of free ones”.

And that’s where things started getting messy: Nisenholtz started talking about Google’s offer to cap the number of first-link-free stories that people can read, and seemed to say that links to NYT content from external blogs would not be free after all. (According to my notes, he said “if you link to us, then it’s counted” — but he might have misspoke, or I might have missheard.) He did seem to change his mind later and revert to the position that incoming links would be free — but at the same time, Sulzberger said that “we can’t construct a system that just tries to please the 5-7% of the audience” who come through the side door. That was a clear message to people like me that the traffic we drive doesn’t matter and that he’s not going to pay us much attention.

The facts, here, seem to be that a good 60% of the NYT’s most loyal users come through the home page, and that an enormous proportion of the rest come through Google. Facebook, Nisenholtz told me, accounts for much less traffic than Google does, the latest research from Compete notwithstanding.

All the while, I was sitting next to a couple of NYT staffers on the paywall project, who were at great pains to tell me absolutely nothing whatsoever, while also making it clear that they’re reading what I’m writing, that they’re listening to bloggers’ concerns, and that as they build the paywall from the bottom up, they’re going to try to avoid the obvious pitfalls.

What I conclude from all this is that the top brass — the people speaking at the lunch — see the big picture, where the overwhelming majority of content consumed is old-fashioned self-contained articles, and where most traffic comes through the home page, and where the broad outlines of how they want to structure a paywall are pretty clear. And I’m going to hold out hope that Sulzberger and Nisenholtz will give their underlings a stylized description of what they want to achieve, and that the underlings will try in good faith to deal with tough cases as sensibly as possible, instead of simply applying rigorous rules.

But if I were the Freakonomics guys, I’d still be asking for a meeting with Nisenholtz to get some reassurance that their blog won’t disappear behind a paywall.

Update: A NYT spokeswoman confirms to the WSJ that NYT blogs will be behind the meter. And adds this:

On so-called side-door enterants, she added that those people will have free access to that article even if they have exhausted their allotment of free ones. However, the Times might consider adopting a service from Google that would let the Times set a cap on Times articles arrived at from third parties.

Update 2: Video of the session is here; Nisenholtz says that “our intention is to keep blogs behind the wall” at about 20:50. The odd bit comes immediately afterwards, around 21:30, when he says that if an external blogger links to a NYT blog, “it’s not open, it’s counted”. But he seems to backtrack on that later.

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