NYT reveals its paywall hopes

By Felix Salmon
March 21, 2011
Jeremy Peters reports on the NYT's internal paywall math:

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Jeremy Peters reports on the NYT’s internal paywall math:

The Times will not say publicly how many online subscribers it hopes to get. But company executives have said privately that the goal for the first year is 300,000. And Mr. Sulzberger and Ms. Robinson insist that the plan is not intended for short-term gain.

“This is not a bet on this year,” Mr. Sulzberger said. The question that remains to be answered is whether that bet pays off in 2015, 2020 or ever.

300,000 subscribers paying on average $200 per year (some will pay more; others will not renew every four weeks for a whole year) works out at $60 million — or less than 20% of the NYT’s digital advertising revenues. It’s a big enough number that I can certainly see why the NYT spent a long time considering this move. But it’s not so big as to be a no-brainer.

That said, if the NYT can get 300,000 paying subscribers — not including people from the Lincoln dealand it can do so while maintaining online ad revenues, then I think the paywall will have worked. One huge unanswered question here is whether advertisers will be willing to pay a premium for reaching readers behind the paywall — if they are, then it’s conceivable that ad revenues might even go up. (And that would also explain why Dealbook is free: it already gets premium ad rates.)

Still, that’s a lot of ifs. Which is where I take issue with David Carr:

The Web was built on collaboration, open networks, and a friction-free flow of information. And the Times attempt – however considered, however nuanced – is an offense against that theology.

And that’s what it is: a theology. One need only read many of the bloggers and commentators in the wake of the announcement to see that what the Times is being accused of is not greed, but heresy.

In reality, the theology comes in statements like this:

“I believe that our journalism is very worth paying for,” said Jill Abramson, The Times’s managing editor for news. “In terms of ensuring our future success, it was important to put that to the test.”

There are two theological statements here, which I hear a lot from NYT journalists. The first is the idea that if you can charge for certain content, then obviously you should. And the second is the idea that charging for content will automatically “ensure future success.” Neither is exactly self-evident. Nor, for that matter, is Arthur Sulzberger’s idea that if the NYT suddenly turns the meter to zero in the wake of a big event like 9/11, then the readers will come flocking back the minute they’re able to. They won’t: once you become habituated to avoiding the NYT, and learn to get your news elsewhere, you’ll continue to do that no matter where the meter is set.

But for the record: I’m skeptical that the NYT will be able to get to 300,000 paying digital subscribers this year. If it does, then the paywall will definitely be more successful than I anticipated, and I’ll happily eat a little bit of crow. Here’s hoping!

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