Yesterday, following months of deliberation, the New York Times announced that it was to go forward with charging online, with a plan to implement a metre system in 2011. It is the biggest publisher yet to lay out paywall plans, and the move is undoubtedly highly significant for the newspaper industry as it struggles with a failing business model. Will this save the New York Times? Could it signal the end for free online content?
Similar to that used by the Financial Times, a metered payment system would allow readers to access a certain number of articles free per month, and then request payment for more: a flat fee for unlimited access. Print subscribers will continue to have free access, even those who subscribe to just the Sunday paper. An online subscription will also cover access via smartphones. The first click free from search engines, which is used by the Wall Street Journal, will also apply. More details such as pricing have been released yet, and the publisher's statement said that the next year will be used to build "a new online infrastructure designed to provide consumers with a frictionless experience across multiple platforms."
A metered system rather than a more fixed paywall has the advantage of not alienating the casual reader who can still visit the site free on occasion, and not angering journalists by blocking off specific articles (an issue with the Times' previous attempt at charging online, TimesSelect). "It allows NYTimes.com to remain a vibrant part of the search-driven Web," reads the Times memo sent to staff by executives Arthur Sulzberger and Janet Robinson, published by Poynter.
It does have potential flaws, however. Before the NYT's announcement, Reuters writer Felix Salmon criticized the way that the FT's flat fee system does not actually work like a metre: suggesting that instead the New York Times should implement a payment process under which readers are charged depending on how much content they consume. And presumably those who are determined not to pay will find ways around the paywall, using multiple accounts, for example.
The Financial Times welcomed the New York Times' decision, according to the Guardian, with CEO John Ridding saying "We welcome the New York Times' new online business model, which is similar to the FT's. We believe in the value of quality journalism and we are pleased that others feel the same way." The FT recently announced that for the first time, its content revenue was greater than its advertising revenue in 2009, after raised cover prices and more online subscribers signing on.
The FT now has 121,000 subscribers. Going by the pricing on the FT's website, it seems that they pay between €186 and €363 per year (depending on whether they choose a standard or premium subscription). Working on the assumption that about half of subscribers pay for each (and that the FT is not counting joint print-online subscribers in this figure), that would mean that the paper could be bringing in something in the region of €33 million from its paywall in direct revenue from readers. And the Wall Street Journal, which offers a different kind of paywall, has an estimated one million paying online subscribers.
This figure is encouragingly high, but how much encouragement can the NYT take from this? As a general interest paper with the most popular website out of all US papers, the Times has a far bigger pool of potential subscribers. But the FT's specialist financial content is something that more people might see as worth paying for. Indeed for some, it is news that is necessary for their business. And with the FT's main international rival the WSJ also charging, there is not an ubiquity of similar news free on the web.
The New York Times does seem to have a better shot at making charging for online content work than other US general interest newspapers. Its status as the number one national paper is largely unquestioned. It has always made a greater proportion of its revenue from content than most newspapers do, receiving 55-60% of its income from advertising compared to a typical figure of 80-85%. The current price for a print subscription is high, at between $550 and $770 a year, depending on location and offers, but many people are still prepared to pay this: more than 800,000 continue to renew their subscriptions, according to the NYT's David Carr.
Given the paper's financial situation, it is unsurprisingly that the paper is looking at changing its business model. Despite its reputation and high number of website visitors, financial constraints have pushed the New York Times into carrying out lay-offs and pay cuts. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim came to the publisher's aid last year with a $250 million loan, but if the paper is to continue to produce top-quality journalism, it needs a steady revenue stream.
Poynter writer Rick Edmonds maintains that the NYT's decision to charge "makes business sense." He believes that the Times will not "lose any meaningful number of unique visitors," and agrees with Ken Doctor that paying users represent a significant targeting advertising opportunity. The Times' memo sent to employees said that executives expect that "digital advertising will continue to be the major contributor to our success on the Web."
Slate editor Jack Shafter is critical of the NYT's strategy, judging it "too easy for freeloaders to game their way around it" and "a waste of the gargantuan audience they've attracted." He suggests that looking into improving web advertising would be a better way to go forward. Jeff Jarvis argues on his blog BuzzMachine that the NYT's plan will end up charging "the readers who are worth the most while serving free those who are worth least," which he believes does not make sense.
With the New York Times on board, efforts to charge online are likely to speed up. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp publications are expected to introduce paid online content in coming months, and there is an increasing sentiment that it just doesn't make sense to give away content that should be seen as valuable. Not everybody agrees, however, and over at the UK paper with the most popular website, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has said that his publication will remain free online. Others will undoubtedly stick to a similar course and provide free alternatives, making it harder for those who do charge. Which business model will eventually prove more successful?