NYT Online Going Pay-Per-View

The NYT is joining the WSJ in making noise about putting a subscriber wall around all its content.

New York Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. appears close to announcing that the paper will begin charging for access to its website, according to people familiar with internal deliberations. After a year of sometimes fraught debate inside the paper, the choice for some time has been between a Wall Street Journal-type pay wall and the metered system adopted by the Financial Times, in which readers can sample a certain number of free articles before being asked to subscribe. The Times seems to have settled on the metered system.

One personal friend of Sulzberger said a final decision could come within days, and a senior newsroom source agreed, adding that the plan could be announced in a matter of weeks. (Apple’s tablet computer is rumored to launch on January 27, and sources speculate that Sulzberger will strike a content partnership for the new device, which could dovetail with the paid strategy.) It will likely be months before the Times actually begins to charge for content, perhaps sometime this spring. Executive Editor Bill Keller declined to comment. Times spokesperson Diane McNulty said: “We’ll announce a decision when we believe that we have crafted the best possible business approach. No details till then.”

While I understand their dilemma and support their goal of making a profit with their news operation, I continue to believe closing their site to readers is a recipe for disaster. I’m an unusual reader, of course, but I’m in the same boat as Ann Althouse:

For me, reading on line is tied to blogging. I’m not going to spend my time reading sites that I can’t blog, and I’m not going to blog and link to sites that you can’t read without paying. Currently, I link to the NYT a lot, perhaps several times a day. I don’t know how much of their traffic is sent their way from blogs, but it’s one more factor that will limit their readership. You’d think what a newspaper would want most is readers, both to influence and to sell to advertisers. I know they need to make money, but I wish advertising was the way. Once they close themselves off — as they did once before with the failure known as TimesSelect — they sacrifice readers and lose appeal for advertisers.

With rare exception, I don’t even visit the NYT main page intentionally. They’re a brand name that I value and I prefer to cite them and a handful of other papers over others. But, at the end of the day, they’re simply not irreplaceable and I’d stop reading them if they were behind a pay wall.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Media, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. just me says:

    I tend to read the majority of my news online, but I also admit I am not going to pay for it.

    There are other news sources out there.

    And one thing many TV news sites have done well is offer up print stories with more details than the video.

    So unless all news goes behind a wall expecting payment, I figure this will be another fail for the print media industry.

  2. John Burgess says:

    I’d miss being able to read/link to NYT pieces, but not enough to pay even the smallest amount of money (other than less than $0.01 per view).

    The NYT’s uniqueness is only so-so in value.

  3. JKB says:

    Well, for keeping objectively informed about what is happening in DC and actually America in general, we just have to worry if the British papers go behind a pay wall.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    I disagree. I think others are going to follow and the web in general will be moving away from free content. It was a mistake ever making these news sources free — the people who run legacy media are idiots when it comes to the web and they ended up falling for a lot of so-called web prophets who sold them castles in the air.

    The trick is to make paying seamless and easy. Once micro-payments are as easy as buying an iPhone app we’ll see the web move more and more to a pay-as-you-browse model. Which is a good thing. It’s time for the web to grow up. This is a step in that direction.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    The WSJ is different; their market sees the paper as something that makes them money. That means that the purchase decision is made on a profit/loss basis.

    The number of people who count on making money from the content they get from the NYT is much, much smaller.

  6. anjin-san says:

    Dave is correct, wsj.com is a business tool. I can live without the Times.

  7. Herb says:

    I think others are going to follow and the web in general will be moving away from free content.

    Oh, no doubt they’ll try. But I suspect that very few will be successful, even with micropayments.

    I’ve got enough passwords to remember.

    Besides, if they want people to pony up per article…fuggetaboutit. I’d pay a subscription to a host of outlets (say, the NY Times plus 20 other papers/magazines/blogs) but it would have to be on a yearly basis (so it doesn’t become another monthly bill and I “forget” buying it) and have to be really easy to access. (no logins/passwords.)

    As for the linking concerns, these are tremendously valid. When Blogger X links to Publication Y, Publication Y benefits…without having to do a thing. Oh sure, Blogger X and the guy clicking his link aren’t paying for the article…but Publication Y isn’t paying any customer acquisition costs either. Not a bad deal really.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    We need a simplified micropayment system buit seamlessly into the browser. Click a page, get a pop-up that asks whether you’ll allow 3 cents (or whatever) to be charged against your online debit account.

    You could add the option of always allowing for certain sites so you wouldn’t even have the interim step.

    Set the price low enough, make it easy to charge, people will do it. I’ll do it. I used to pay for the dead tree NYT, I don’t see why I shouldn’t pay for the digital version.

    More to the point: if we don’t start paying there won’t be any content for us to refuse to pay for.

    As for bloggers, why not set up a referral fee? For every 100 paid clicks OTB sends to the NYT, OTB earns a dime. That would veer bloggers away from free content and toward paid content.

  9. Herb says:

    Hmmm….not bad. A few questions though:

    A) Who would manage the browser micropayment system? Mozilla? Microsoft? Google? A third party?

    B) How would they get paid? Say, take a penny for every .03 cents they move from reader to publisher? Surely they’ll expect to be compensated for providing this service, no?

    C) You don’t like the yearly subscription idea (ala dead-tree magazines)? I’d much rather pay for a year of the Times than $.03 per article. It fits more in line with my browsing habits, and it would make my itemized bill much much smaller.

    Not sure about that referral fee idea, though. Now the Times pays nothing when OTB links to them. But with a referral fee they pay a dime for every 100 click-thrus? I can see them holding up their hand saying, “Hey, can we go back to the paying nothing days?”

    “if we don’t start paying there won’t be any content for us to refuse to pay for.”

    That’s definitely a concern, but you should revise it from “won’t be any content” to “won’t be any good content.”

    When all the pros go under, you can read my crappy blog (mercifully left unlinked here). But I doubt you’d want to.

  10. DC Loser says:

    It’s not a newspaper, but state owned news services like the BBC will always be free (at least to us Yanks). So as long as the BBC is there with its free news – no worries, mate.

  11. Andre Kenji says:

    Several newspapers here in Brazil tried the paywall. In the end, people would read others news sites.

    By the way, the problem is that news outlets today have to deal with a global audience(That´s why names like the BBC, The Economist and CNN International are such hot names) and it´s harder to bill these people. One dollar is plenty of money in India, for instance.

    And these news outlets also syndicate their content.

  12. johnr says:

    I recently heard the story of a journalism student who said “If the news item is actually important, it’ll find ME.” This is a perfectly reasonable statement to those of us who read news aggregators, set up RSS feeds, and surf the larger news outlets, but it’s freak-out moment for tweed-jacketed journalism profs anf lovers of the Gray Lady. British news outlets are ripping into BBC for their content-rich, multimedia web site, and they’re claiming BBC is styfling capitalism and monopolizing the news market. Some of the may be true (after all, they invented newspeak), and I’ll admit that “free” is a difficult business model for news outlets trying to make an honest living, BUT… I also refuse to pay for news. The news media will be forced to abandon their “public service” halo, because they’re no better (or worse) than Ford, Google, Microsoft, or the NFL… it’s about profit. All that said, local news and local stories are the most likely victims in all this, but that’s another story and if you want to hear it, you’ll have to pay me. 😉

  13. Franklin says:

    Last time I checked, I can still watch multi-millionaires playing sports, and I can do so for free. And it’s been this way for decades, and the athletes keep getting paid.

    Advertisers still pay for much of our TV and radio, I’m not sure there’s much reason it has to be different for news. There may need to be an adjustment to the number of news sources, but that’s not my problem.

  14. Brett says:

    I will definitely be sad when the day comes that the NYT goes behind a subscription wall. While I read a number of news sources, the NYT serves as the kind of news “center” for most of my reading on the United States in general.

    Looks like I’ll be reading a lot more BBC News online as well as Reuters and McClatchy.

  15. Bill H says:

    Unless they quit selling their content to The San Diego Union Tribune, I will get to read the NYT in my local paper. I’ll get it a day later, but I’ll get the same items and the same bylines. Our paper is 40% AP, 50% NYT and 10% local sports writers. The local sports writers are really good. I haven’t missed Tom Friedman yet. If they go behind a wall, I’ll only have to read him once instead of twice.

  16. M1EK says:

    The whole problem is that the consumer would expect a reasonable micropayment for an article to be perhaps a penny (divide the cost of the physical newspaper by # of articles, double for higher a la carte pricing, perhaps); while the content providers seem intent on getting a buck.

    This gulf is far too wide to be bridged. See music industry, death of.

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    The advertising model doesn’t seem to be working very well online. So at some point readers either pay news providers or news providers stop supplying news.

    People won’t work for free. So somehow or other they need to get paid. And anyone who thinks the blogatariat doesn’t rely on legacy news providers is high. Subtract AP, NYT, WaPo and the networks from the mix and you have very little actual reporting left. If you’re counting on Fleet Street to carry the ball you’re equally high: they are subject to the same economic pressures as our media, and will end up in the same place. Which leaves what, the BBC? In other words we’re going to get all our news courtesy of the British taxpayer?

    The issue is not whether we will eventually pay for news but how and how much and who will survive until we reach some kind of a solution.

  18. I’m fine with anyone trying a business model, but the weird thing for me is “Step A” in any serious process … identifying the subset of web users who will pay. Who are they? I can only guess.

    I don’t think Google News will empty out anytime soon. And, as of today we can still jump from Google News to unlocked versions of pages from the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

    Perhaps if you click this link it won’t work, but if you search “Economists Point to Muted Growth in 2010” yourself at http://news.google.com it will. That’s not a bug. That’s a feature. They want “news shoppers.”

  19. BTW, let’s remember that the reason the big cities all had separate newspaper staff was that it was hard to physically distribute news. You couldn’t have one news staff in NY (or even Lebanon, Kansas) and ship the morning paper to everyone from there. So staff grew by the local presses. The physics of local distribution encouraged local news barons.

    Frictionless distribution on the Internet means that one staff in NY (or Delhi) can get the news out.

    Now, when you think about making news pay, what are you thinking? That one news crew (centralized or distributed) would get (micro)payments from everyone? Or do you still think there is a model for many newspapers?

    I think the latter is very unlikely, and the former is at least possible … though a lot of ink will have to be spilt before we know for sure.

  20. Michael Reynolds says:


    I’ve been looking with some avidity of interest at the book business in this regard and I think it may have some carryover to other media.

    In the current model writers are all over the place in meat space but then we funnel our product through NYC publishers who then distribute it throughout the world.

    In the new digital book biz we writers will still be wherever we happen to be and we’ll have a menu of options: sell dead tree rights in the traditional way, sell digital rights to Amazon et al, sell direct to consumer, or combine all of the above.

    So I wonder if reporting won’t follow something of that same path. Reporter Joe can funnel his reporting to the NYT, or to HuffPo, or sell it direct to consumer on his own site, or most likely work all of those angles more or less simultaneously. That way if the NYT has the means to pay him, great, likewise HuffPo, or he may build his own following as Michael Totten has done.

    One thing I think is dead is the big newsroom model. There’s no reason on earth the NYT needs floor after floor of prime real estate in Manhattan to do its job. Nor do they need to be paying into retirement accounts, providing health care, and all the rest. The same reporters could be doing the same work out of home offices. Indeed it would allow the NYT to have many times more local “bureaus” and save a hell of a lot of money in the bargain. There’s no reason on earth why the NYT should be paying a Bombay-based correspondant US/NYC wages plus benefits. Not if they can get the same or better product from a local for a third the cost.

  21. Brett says:

    Which leaves what, the BBC? In other words we’re going to get all our news courtesy of the British taxpayer?

    I already get most of my international news that way – I read the NYT mostly to get the “American” perspective after reading the BBC and Reuters first on international events. I’ll mostly be sad for the loss of domestic coverage. I must admit that I find the idea of a blogosphere dominated by BBC, Reuters, and AP news articles rather amusing.

    I suppose if the subscription model actually caught on, we’d just be completing the circle on newspapers. Originally, most newspapers were subscription-based. Over the 19th century, they became overwhelmingly advertising-based.

    So I wonder if reporting won’t follow something of that same path. Reporter Joe can funnel his reporting to the NYT, or to HuffPo, or sell it direct to consumer on his own site, or most likely work all of those angles more or less simultaneously. That way if the NYT has the means to pay him, great, likewise HuffPo, or he may build his own following as Michael Totten has done.

    That sounds pretty rough for the would-be reporter. He or she basically has to either have a day-job (like most would-be authors, and many actual authors), or live in poverty unless they can build up enough income from submissions and ad revenue on their own websites. The big winners, of course, would be those who already have reputations to draw interest in their stuff, particularly since any such reporter is going to be competing with about a billion other people vending a variety of news and competing for ad revenue.

    Not that it’s necessarily wrong, but I can see why newspaper folks aren’t in any rush to get there.

    One other thing – fact-checking would be tricky in such an environment.

  22. Michael Reynolds says:


    It would certainly be a very different environment for reporters. They’d all be free-lance, and that can be a tough life.

    As for fact-checking, that’s one of the things the internet is actually good at.

    You’re right that at first the rich would get richer as established names would outshine up-and-comers. But that advantage wouldn’t last long.