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.

13 comments

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Speaking for all the bloggers who link to the New York Times, and “curate” a portion of their content, I’d like to say I am 100% supportive of this plan. I for one will be buying a subscription!

Now allow me to ask a question that’ll really infuriate NYT execs. If bloggers like us are sending them thousands of clicks a day, and those clicks are leading to subscription revenue, shouldn’t we get some kind of remuneration for that service? For instance, Amazon has an affiliate program to reward us for clicks we send them. Sure, you could say we’re already being paid by being able to use and link to the content, but remember: most of the time we have a choice. Like maybe we could link to the WSJ, which is making a major push into New York Times territory in all coverage areas. And maybe if the Times doesn’t like the affiliate program idea, the Journal should consider it. It might be a nice way to steal a lot of inbound traffic, and an important audience, from the Times.

Posted by jakedobkin | Report as abusive

The irony is that their blog section is built using free WordPress software.

Posted by JMX | Report as abusive

Dude, that software wasn’t free- The Times invested in WordPress’ parent company.

Posted by jakedobkin | Report as abusive

I don’t think they’re following the chain of causality back quite far enough with respect to Google as a source of traffic. How do they think Google determines which articles are newsworthy, and should be placed highly in results? By inbound links, a proxy for the degree of interest by the commentariat, to a greater or lesser extent.

In other words, there are second and third order effects here that NYT doesn’t sound like it’s considering.

Posted by BarryKelly | Report as abusive

It will be interesting to see how many people will want to pay just to read another person’s opinion.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive

Lousy economic times are forcing households to cancel the newspaper, phone company, maybe even part of their cable bill. As long as they have Internet access. I work for http://storyburn.com where we have the most read home foreclosure and job hunting stories on the web. 7 million homes right get 100% of their video consumption from the web.

Posted by muchstardude | Report as abusive

The main purpose of buying the NYT is to have some sort of wall between the reader and fellow occupants on the subway. The only paywall worth paying for doesn’t work on an iPad…

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Younger people don’t subscribe to newspapers, they’ve been used to receiving content for free, and to top it off it’s becoming a mobile world and we’ve all been trained by our iphones to think in terms of “apps” which are free or cost relatively little for the ones that we want. When are these print dinosaurs going to come into the new age and cut their losses and make the basic NYT a moderately priced app and spin off the “hot” properties such as the crosswords or Sunday Magazine for additional app revenue?

Didn’t they learn anything from what Jobs did with iTunes and the $.99 songs that have sold bazillions instead of albums that most people are reluctant to buy for $10 when they only want 2 or 3 songs at a buck a pop?

These grand subscription schemes will fail and they’ll come around in the end – new media will rule.

Posted by sport | Report as abusive

I still like to think of myself as young (I’m 28) and I’ve never subscribed to a paper, print or online. Luckily I have a Bloomberg terminal to keep me up to date and the rest, the commentary I pick and choose online.

The newspapers ought to believe that a one size fits all regular subscription may make a bit short term but over the long term is to accept an eventual decline into irrelevance, ie one day the NYT may be like the New Yorker, something I might buy every once in a while when stuck in an airport layover.

I consume news content like I consume food, and I like variety. I’m about as likely to opt for an NYT subscription as I am to sign up to a 12 month deal to eat at the same restuarant every Saturday night.

Posted by vk9141 | Report as abusive

Putting the blogs behind the pay-wall is a remarkably dumb idea. I don’t think news sources should give up on charging for content online — the revenue to support a newsroom has to come from somewhere — but no one will pay for blogs, and no one will pay for opinion writing. (Wasn’t this largely why TimesSelect failed?) I think that most people view blogs as easily substitutable, which is why few people will pay for that sort of thing.

If the Times wants to charge for anything, it should focus on charging only for certain kinds of hard news. Obviously, not everyone who visits nytimes.com now will be willing to pay for news, but serious news consumers recognize that much of the actual news in the Times is not duplicated elsewhere.

Posted by russms | Report as abusive

“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.”

Do you have any data to support this? Has there ever been a case of a popular blog being taken private and charging and failing?

Certainly, if one of the blogs I love and rely on went paywall, I would consider paying.

Posted by AnnB | Report as abusive

There is another alternative — “social cents”.

“Social Cents” are voluntary payments based on a flat rate and distributed fairly across the user’s favorite sites based on usage (as a proxy for value received).

The NYTimes blogs are the perfect place for Kachingle — “social cents for digital stuff” because each blog has a loyal user base many of whom would not only like to support the blogger, but would also like public association with the blog.

Kachingle went live on Feb 14, 2010 and there are now 65 sites including a newspaper (The DailyCamera of Boulder, CO), quite a few investigative journalism sites (e.g. Center for Investigative Reporting, Center for Public Policy, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting), and Carta.info (the “Politico of Germany”), along with many others.

Check it out at http://www.kachingle.com.

Cynthia Typaldos
Founder, Kachingle
cynthia A*T kachingle.com
http://www.kachingle.com
blog.kaching.com

Posted by Kachingler1 | Report as abusive

So, I’ve got to subsidize Judy Miller by paying to read Paul Krugman? Such a deal!

Posted by lambertstrether | Report as abusive