Can the New York Times paywall save journalism?

Today, after a short trial run with their Canadian subscribers, the New York Times will start charging for some digital content.

This plan has been in the works at NYT for over a year, and has been receiving much praise and much criticism across the media world.

This paywall decision is particularly important in today’s media climate. We all know that more and more people are getting their news online. Well online advertising pays pennies to the dollar compared to what print advertising pays, and advertising is the shaky business model that most media outlets have been built on. That includes the NY Times.

Journalism isn’t cheap, and even as newsrooms have been shrinking and papers have been shedding reporters and staff, we need a major change in the journalism business model for it to continue to exist.

Enter: NY Times paywall.

First off, let’s set some facts straight about what the paywall is and isn’t.

  1. Everyone gets to see 20 articles per month without charge at NYTimes.com.
  2. Articles linked on blogs, facebook, twitter and other social media sites will always be accessible, even if you’re over your 20 article limit. Also there will be a limited number of free articles from search engines.
  3. Articles on the NYTimes.com homepage and the “Top News” section on smartphones and tablets will always be free and accessible.
  4. The digital subscription is free for any newspaper subscribers. The online-only (meaning just from a computer) digital subscription is $15/month, the tablet/smartphone subscription is $25/month. (Although they are giving away the first month for only 99 cents).

So as paywalls go, this seems to be a pretty carefully crafted one. I’m happy to see that social media/blog links won’t be blocked, because that would surely make our job harder if our readers couldn’t read the NYT articles we reference. I also strongly believe we need innovative models for the funding of journalism, and finding a way to re-accustom people to subscribing to the magazines and newspapers they read regularly could be one piece of this puzzle.

Anna Clark has her top five reasons to pay for the NY Times, which I recommend checking out. I personally subscribe the Sunday edition of the newspaper (mostly for the NY Times magazine, and for the novelty of reading in print), so I’m happy to know that a get a digital subscription included. I subscribe to a number of print magazines as well because I do believe in supporting the entities I read regularly (also, hint: most magazine subscriptions are very cheap these days).

Journalism is costly–particularly the type that requires on the ground reporting. As a blogger I rely heavily on content from sources like the NYT, often a starting point off of which I base my own analysis. I usually can’t be in Libya, or in Madison, or Japan, or wherever the important stories are developing. We need a journalism industry that can afford to do that reporting. NPR has done amazing things with its reader supported model, and subscriptions are just another version of that.

The advertising business model sucks, is inconsistent, sometimes presents murky ethical questions, and has been failing the industry for years. So I say good luck NYTimes, I hope it works for you.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted March 28, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    is is something I think about often. I work at a publishing company, and we are constantly trying to find ways to balance free content with subscription content, so we can still keep the lights on around here while making content accessbile. I know it sucks to pay for something that was previously free, but to get up-to-date news written by a journalist (not the garbage on the cable news shows or in scandal rags) we’ll have to pony up.

    This, of course, creates a class divide, where those who can pay the premium for high-quality news will have more knowledge, but I think the New York Times model does a good job of balancing free and premium content. The newspaper business is still a business, after all. It has to make money somehow.

  2. Posted March 28, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Posted March 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    The funny thing is that I can read the print edition of the NYT for free, but don’t. On the train I ride into NYC, enough people leave their papers on the train that anyone who wants a free copy just has to walk through the train to get one. For a while I would read them, but after a while it just bored me.

    Most of the articles are fluff, or about communities within NYC that I’m not interested in (high fashion, the rich and famous, the artsy set, etc.), and doesn’t cover anything in the NYC area outside of Manhattan. Even the national and international reporting focusses on a lot of details that I find aren’t all that important to my understanding in the long run, and doesn’t report at all on the aspects that are really important. In my experience, more “information” doesn’t lead to more understanding, but to less.

    On the other hand, I do subscribe to my local newspaper. The reporting isn’t great, and it has its share of fluff, but it’s the only place that covers what is happening in my county. For instance, I would know nothing about anybody on the ballot if I didn’t subscribe. It covers the basic information about what is happening in the region, the nation, and the world. It’s also less biased in favor of the Establishment than the NYT.

    I don’t object to the NY Times charging for on-line access. It’s their paper, after all. If it’s worth it to you to read it, it’s worth paying for. What does bug me is how many blog posters will simply link to some article on the NY Times website and not bother to say what is in the article or even mention the part that is relevant to their post. I’m not willing to register or subscribe to the NY Times just so I can find out what the heck Jane or John Blogger is fulminating about.

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