Monday, February 1, 2010

NYT's finest says, "Charge 'Em!"

When I heard about the New York Times’ plan to begin charging visitors a flat fee to access its website beginning in 2011, I had a handful of reactions that ranged from puzzlement to rabid indignation. Well, maybe my indignation wasn’t quite rabid; I didn’t foam at the mouth or anything. A quiet indignation, then, like what I might experience if Starbucks started raising the price of my morning latte by fifteen cents.

Price increase notwithstanding, I am prepared to shell out and I think my reaction characterizes the straight-up consumer reaction to the Grey Lady’s so-called “paywall” for content. Diehard readers will pay whatever nominal fee the Times imposes, because somewhere in the back of their minds (and I think with the Times’ readership demographic we can assume that they can make this logical leap) they know that the content they consume online deserves to be paid for. The current system, industry-wide, of offering up the efforts of trained professional journalists and columnists for free is untenable; compensation must come from somewhere. YOU don’t work for free, do you???

The trouble is, many of us assumed it would come from advertising. And this is the origin for my second reaction, puzzlement. If any publication should be able to support its online presence through advertising, it is the New York Times. It has the quality content, the extended page views, and the traffic that advertisers ought to be creaming themselves over. The site attracts more than 146 million visitors annually, has more than twice the number of unique visitors than the next most popular newspaper website (it’s 59th among all websites), and has spawned 22 of the top 50 most popular newspaper blogs. Yet a company the size of the Times needs well over a billion pageviews per month to generate enough advertising revenue to stay afloat, which it’s currently not getting.

As the Times has tried charging consumers before, déjà vu was my third reaction. Times Select, which charged for access to popular columns and other features, was discontinued after two years after bloggers routinely reposted content that lain behind that particular paywall. It seems rather strange that the Times would try something so similar again, and with little promise of achieving different results.

Is the move is a good one for the Times? I want to yes because I support paying for quality content, but I’m torn because they tried this once before.

The social media sphere is so much more developed today than it was at the outset of the Times Select “experiment”, and therefore more important as a traffic generator for the site. If the NYT limits this source of trackbacks and links, traffic will fall further at the site than it might anyway, and artificially restricting the newspaper’s online presence is hardly a good strategy in this day and age.

Well, there you are. I’m conflicted, a jumble of confusion and (mild) frustration. I guess that puts me in the same boat with the Times executives behind this decision.

Anyone else out there who is also feeling conflicted?

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