'New York Times' Rolls Out Online Paywall
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The New York Times has twice experimented with making some readers pay for online content, and twice it's backed away. This morning, Times executives announced they would make the most loyal readers pay to access their website, though a lot of casual readers would not pay a cent.
As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, this time, executives say they think they've found the right formula and right moment to do the seemingly impossible: Get people to pay for online news.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Here's the idea. Print subscribers already pay up to $800 a year for the privilege of reading the New York Times in a hard copy. As of later this month, the paper will charge $15 each month for Web access and an iPhone application; or $20 for access on the Web, iPad and other tablets; or $35 for all three platforms.
Janet Robinson is the CEO of the New York Times Company. She tells NPR these changes are a reflection of how people now consume the news.
Ms. JANET ROBINSON (CEO, New York Times Company): We have to be agnostic in regard to how people digest the news product. We can't force them to buy a print subscription, we can't force them to buy a digital application. We have to be there in every venue.
FOLKENFLIK: The Times has embraced what's called a metered approach. Readers can click on as many as 20 different articles, slide shows or videos a month without paying a cent.
A page click through a Google search, or a friend's referral via Facebook or Twitter, won't count against you. More ironclad paywalls for news sites tend to stifle traffic, and that can diminish the influence of a publication's reporting and commentary.
Times Publisher and Board Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s family has controlled the paper for more than a century. He says this new hybrid pricing system will help pay for the Times's robust journalism in a new age.
Mr. ARTHUR SULZBERGER JR. (New York Times Publisher): We did not - any of us - feel that putting up an iron gate, if you will, that cuts you out of the digital ecosystem, made any sense at all. So this is about balance.
FOLKENFLIK: As Sulzberger says, digital readers have been conditioned by tablet and smartphone applications to pay for content. But only a few mainstream news organizations have successfully pursued that tack for their websites. Conventional wisdom says readers tend to pay only for content that aids their business interests, such as the financial press, or that satisfies a strong passion, like sports.
Emily Bell was the director of digital content for the Guardian in the U.K., and she's now the director for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia. She says most online readers will still have free access to the website.
Ms. EMILY BELL (Columbia University): They're very sensible not to put the wall across the front of the house. I think that the New York Times is trying harder to make sure that it still is part of the Web.
FOLKENFLIK: But Bell argues that the Times squandered money and energy better spent creating other revenue streams instead.
Ms. BELL: And that, I think, is the real tragedy of it, that it's become a dominant strategy for people to examine and pursue. And it's too expensive, and it returns too little - and it actually hastens decline.
FOLKENFLIK: Sulzberger says the New York Times Company is in a test-and-learn phase. It'll tweak the system as needed, he says, and he says he takes comfort from looking at public radio stations, which offer programs for free but nonetheless draw voluntarily contributions from passionate listeners.
The metered system is set to take effect this morning in Canada as a dress rehearsal for American users. The meter starts running in the U.S. and around the rest of the world on March 28.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
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