LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

This weekend, tributes are being paid to former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who died Friday at the age of 92. When Cronkite was known to viewers as the most trusted man in America, only three national television networks competed for the country's attention. Today, faster technologies and shorter attention spans are spawning niche audiences for news. These are very tough times for the newspaper industry. The New York Times Company is currently exploring ways to charge for its online content. The question is how much?

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is in our New York studio to explain what's going on. David, first, what's under consideration here?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, they're trying to test a couple of models: one called metered and one called membership. Meter reading, that is, it's free up to a point. You can read, say, 10 or perhaps 20 or 25 articles a month. And then if you go over that, then you trigger a fee, that is, you'd have to pay more to read more.

Then the notion of membership, that sounds familiar to listeners of Public Radio. The idea might be pay money per month, per year and you'd get benefits. But I talked to a senior official at the Times Company, she said they don't know yet what the benefits might be.

In addition, they're exploring what other elements they might be able to charge people for. One example that's given is people are fanatical about The New York Times' crossword puzzle, after all, our own Will Shortz is involved in curating those for The Times. But people are currently willing to pay extra for additional online crossword puzzles. So there might be other kinds of material that people might be willing to pay for.

And one point I want to underline: print subscribers are already paying a premium price for the print edition, they're not going to be the people being asked to pony up to read online, as well.

HANSEN: Didn't The Times try this before?

FOLKENFLIK: They absolutely did. They had something called Times Select that put a number of their most well-known opinion columnists behind a pay wall. It both attracted $10 million annual revenues, but also some tension, both from readers and from the columnists themselves who wanted to make sure as many people as possible could read and be influenced by their columns.

HANSEN: What's the focus of the debate in the newspaper industry about this? Because newspapers, as we all know, are needing new sources of revenue.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, that's right. There's a lot of things at stake for The Times here. It can be thought of as surrogate for the industry. The Times Company makes about, call it, $237 million a year from its newspaper's Web sites. And the vast majority of that is from the nytimes.com. They make that essentially off advertising.

So the question is, if you force people to pay, are you then constricting the size of your audience? The answer's almost, certainly, yes, you are. And is there a sweet spot for them to hit where they can increase the revenues from the fees they charge without greatly imperiling the advertising revenue they get from maximizing the size of their audience?

There's a debate right now. People like Chris Anderson of Wired and online guru Jeff Jarvis in the news industry, say, you know, essentially information wants to be free. If you can reach it online, people want you to link to it. They don't want you to put it behind a pay wall. It will shrink your influence. It will shrink your size. And it will shrink your vitality.

Others say, hey, these guys do Herculean labors to report and produce the news, they need to be paid for that effort even if it's being consumed online, as well as in print.

HANSEN: Briefly, do other newspapers charge for their online content?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the classic example is The Wall Street Journal. And even there, there's a bit of a hybrid where you can read a certain number of news articles for free in varying different ways. But after a certain point, particularly the financial news is charged.

The New York Times surveyed about 30 companies who do charge online, companies from ESPN to Consumer Reports and Weight Watchers. These people all charge their consumers. And there are other efforts, through Amazon's Kindle and a new consortium called Journalism, LLC, that are attempting to find ways to charge readers of online news.

The problem is there are some experts who suggest that although you can charge for certain kinds of niche publications, people's passions, like sports or things that are vital to their business models, like The Wall Street Journal, it's much tougher to do it for straight up news.

HANSEN: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

HANSEN: Read more about The Times' financial situation in David's latest column, Media Circus, on our Web site npr.org.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.