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Posted by James McQuivey on January 19, 2010
A storm has been brewing at The New York Times for a while now. Ever since TimesSelect -- the paid digital version of the Times -- was cancelled back in 2007, the "content wants to be free" crowd has danced around its proverbial grave, singing the equivalent of "ding, dong, paid media is dead."
It's hard to argue against that viewpoint given the reality we're seeing: long-time newspapers closing their print editions entirely (see Seattle Post-Intelligencer), august magazines such as Gourmet shutting their doors, newspaper subscriptions at unprecedented lows, not to mention the power that Google has over the traffic that newspapers and magazines generate. Worse, our consumer surveys show us that 80% of US adults will choose not to pay for online newspaper or magazine content if they can't get it for free (see my colleague Sarah Rotman Epps' post on this for more).
It is amidst this maelstrom that nytimes.com is reportedly considering erecting a new pay wall -- one presumes a shiner, prettier one than the last wall, but a pay wall nonetheless. Read New York mag's take on the situation here. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a bad idea whose time has unfortunately come.
First, let's look at what nytimes.com risks by shutting off the free flow of its particular mix of cultural elitism. For argument's sake, let's accept Compete.com's view of nytimes.com at about 15 million visitors per month, compared to the wsj.com's smaller 11+ million. It's safe to assume that traffic will go down, even providing that some brand-critical content will remain free (please don't cut off my David Brooks drip, please). The question is whether the traffic will get cut by 80% as our survey would indicate, or whether it will end up somewhere less damaged, say, cut by 30% -- though with far fewer page views per viewer because even if substantial content is included for free, it will have a meter on it that expires after some number of pages, typically five.
As much as I like to pick on media companies when they're short-sighted, I don't think such a complaint applies in this case. In the spirit of helping to rebuild this particular media company in the digital era, I want to offer a few pieces of advice to the folks finalizing the details of this shift:
Notice that this advice is directed to nytimes.com and nobody else. Because there is no other newspaper we believe can pull this off at this time, even though a majority of newspaper editors are considering it. In fact, other papers like The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times should go on the offensive and try to satisfy as many ad-funded readers as possible, since they'll have a shot at boasting as many monthly uniques as nytimes.com.
Rebuilding the media isn't pretty. You can't satisfy everyone. But you can satisfy customers with convenient access to good content across multiple platforms. That's what people are paying for more and more -- in video, in music, in books, and increasingly, in news.