New York Times To Reinstitute Pay Wall

The New York Times, in an about-face, announced Wednesday that starting next year it will charge its most-frequent users a fee to access content on its Web site. Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at NYU and writes the PressThink blog, says the move is a gamble.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Well, log on for free while you can. The New York Times announced today that beginning next year, it will start charging readers for its Web content.

After a long, internal debate, the Times management came up with a meter system. After a number of free visits, a reader will be charged for certain articles. And here to talk about whether this is a good idea, and whether it will save the newspaper business, is Jay Rosen. He's a journalism professor at NYU.

Welcome to the program.

Professor JAY ROSEN (Journalism, New York University): Thank you very much.

BRAND: Well, everyone in the media has been trying to figure out how to make money off the Web, and is this the savior?

Mr. ROSEN: There's really no way to tell yet. It's a gamble by the New York Times. I don't think they know if it's going to work. And we still have a lot of details missing from their plan, so we're just going to have to see what happens.

BRAND: Although there is some history with the New York Times because several years ago, it tried to implement what they call Times Select, where they asked people to pay to read certain columnists, and then they abandoned it, I guess, because it wasn't working.

Mr. ROSEN: Well, it's not exactly true that they abandoned it because it wasn't working. They actually met their targets. They got quite a few people to sign up, and they were earning revenues off Times Select.

However, what they discovered was that the traffic coming from search, mainly from Google to the New York Times, was so strong that they could probably make more money by opening the gates and making themselves very amenable to Google.

BRAND: So now, do they want to give up this accessibility for Google by charging for the content?

Mr. ROSEN: Well, this is the reason they have gone to what's called a metered system where after a certain number of visits, you have to pay. But by having this cushion, they hope to contain the damage and get as many users from Google as possible, and only charge the people who are very heavy users of the site. That's the reason for this metered system.

BRAND: But the Web is a wild and woolly place, and I imagine there are all sorts of ways to get around this.

Mr. ROSEN: There's the threat of people posting content from the Times at blogs and other sites, without authorization. But even more troubling is the possibility that people will just go elsewhere - to, for example, The Guardian's site, which the editor there just yesterday said they plan to remain free; or the Washington Post, which has said it doesn't have plans to charge for content; or indeed, npr.org.

And so these are some of the variables that the Times executives were juggling. And part of the judgment they probably made is that we have authoritative reporting in journalism and to some degree, they are gambling on that itself.

BRAND: That people will be willing to fork over money for this unique content.

Mr. ROSEN: Yes. But there's another issue here, which is that the people who work for the New York Times believe that their journalism should be addressed to the public at large. And one of the things that happens when you start to charge is, you're in effect cutting yourself off from the widest possible public your journalism can reach. And if the real product of the New York Times is its influence, then this is a very risky move with the very heart and soul of the newspaper, which is its ability to affect and influence public conversation.

BRAND: But not to sound too flip about it, those journalists, when faced with a choice of being accessible to the world or having a job, would probably choose the latter.

Mr. ROSEN: Well, that is right. And it is a difficult choice, and that's one reason they agonized about it for more than a year and still haven't really figured out the details.

BRAND: Jay Rosen teaches journalism at NYU and writes the PressThink blog.

Jay Rosen, thank you very much.

Mr. ROSEN: My pleasure.

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