An Important Initiative  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March & april 2011

An Important Initiative   

The New York Times’ plan to charge for digital content Posted: Fri, March 18, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Props to the New York Times.

Making a serious attempt to get people to pay for digital news is clearly the right thing to do. So its soon-to-be-launched plan to charge more-than-casual visitors for Times content is a worthy experiment.

Covering news the right way is a very expensive proposition. It takes a lot of money to send platoons of reporters to the Middle East and Japan. It's costly to have high-priced investigative reporters spend months on important projects.

In the heady if barely remembered days of yesteryear, print advertising more than paid the freight. But the Internet era put an emphatic stop to that.

For years print news outlets have posted their content on their Web sites free of charge. The conventional wisdom was that all the eyeballs it would attract would also lead to an explosion of online advertising revenue. The revenue came, but in far smaller amounts than are needed to support the large newsrooms of the past. And so the once unthinkable idea of charging for digital has gradually come into vogue.

The Times' plan seems to have some major pluses. It's not a paywall: Visitors can get 20 stories a month free before the meter starts running. And there are a lot of codicils and loopholes that will allow more than that. So unlike the jettisoned Times Select plan, under which you had to subscribe to the print product or pull out your credit card to read the Times' columnists online, no content is strictly off-limits for non-paying customers. So much of the side door traffic to nytimes.com will be preserved.

It makes sense that heavy users, who clearly value the material most, would be most likely to pony up for the privilege of reading it.

At the same time, the plan significantly raises the value of a subscription to the print version of the Times, not a small thing in and of itself.

Does all of that mean the plan will be a raging success? Of course not. There is no shortage of savants who say it won't work. And it may not for all I know. I'm not sure anyone else does either. Bill Grueskin, academic dean at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, put it best: "All those who say the paywall won't work, or that it will, don't know."

So why do I applaud the Times? Because it is making a serious effort to find out whether people will pay for digital news. This plan, now being road-tested in Canada before it goes into effect in the U.S. on March 28, has been a long time in the making. Clearly a lot of serious thought has gone into it. And it's not etched in granite. No doubt some of its components — price points, e.g. — will be tweaked, as has happened at the Financial Times.

The Internet era has brought and will continue to bring exciting new initiatives to journalism and to its consumers. But the collateral damage to legacy media has been huge. Newspaper after newspaper has drastically reduced its roster of journalists and the amount of original news it offers its readers, whether in print or online.

To its great credit, the Times has stood by its commitment to providing serious news, with depth and breadth.

What it produces has great value. And it's hardly outrageous to ask people to pay for it.

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