In August 2009, David Simon – the creator of the critically acclaimed HBO television show “The Wire,” top-selling author, and former reporter for The Baltimore Sun – penned a story for the Columbia Journalism Review that urged newspapers to make a major change in how readers access their online articles.
Simon urged The New York Times and The Washington Post, two of the biggest and most well-respected newspapers in the country, to start charging for their online content. He was one of the most vocal in defending the value of true, long-form journalism, and has argued that newspapers giving away their product for free will just continue to lead to plummeting circulation and advertising dollars. This cycle will eventually lead to newspaper’s ultimate demise.
For the past year, The Times has wrestled with the idea of going to some form of a pay site. NYTimes.com is one of the most popular websites on the internet, but their online advertising didn’t result in a big enough profit for The Times company.
It was reported yesterday by NYMag.com that The Times may have finally decided on a way to make readers pay for content.
New York Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. appears close to announcing that the paper will begin charging for access to its website, according to people familiar with internal deliberations. After a year of sometimes fraught debate inside the paper, the choice for some time has been between a Wall Street Journal-type pay wall and the metered system adopted by the Financial Times, in which readers can sample a certain number of free articles before being asked to subscribe. The Times seems to have settled on the metered system.
If this does occur, it could have a major ripple effect in the newspaper industry. Every newspaper around the country will be watching The Times to see if this works, as the major argument against having pay sites is whether readers would be willing to pay for something that they’re so used to getting for free.
The final decision could come this week, with a formal announcement to come within the next few weeks. According to the story, The Times wouldn’t start charging for content for months (perhaps starting in the spring).
The decision to go to a pay-site was not an easy one. Top-level employees at The Times had been debating the decision for the last year, with those that advocated to stay free citing the growth of the website, and the possibility of big profit coming in the future from web advertising.
The argument for remaining free was based on the belief that nytimes.com is growing into an English-language global newspaper of record, with a vast audience — 20 million unique readers — that, [Times digital chief Martin] Nisenholtz and others believed, would prove lucrative as web advertising matured. (The nytimes.com homepage, for example, has sold out on numerous occasions in the past year.) As other papers failed to survive the massive migration to the web, the Times would be the last man standing and emerge with even more readers. Going paid would capture more circulation revenue, but risk losing significant traffic and with it ad dollars. At an investor conference this fall, Nisenholtz alluded to this tension: "At the end of the day, if we don't get this right, a lot of money falls out of the system."
Nisenholtz’s argument certainly has tremendous merit, and if the pay-site idea fails, it may be difficult to earn back a lot of the readers that NYTimes.com currently gets. The huge declines in advertising from the recession last year put pressure on the newspaper to act now with their pay idea or risk even more profit declines that they wouldn't be able to withstand.
Simon and others in favor of newspapers charging for their content ultimately got their wish and now we’ll see what impact this will have on the industry. With so many people used to getting online newspaper content for free – like readers, bloggers, online news sites, etc. – will those people be willing to pay for the written word?
At the very least, this model may help to answer the question: How much is true journalism really worth?