Frances M. Roberts/Newscom
Put your ear to your computer. You hear that collective wailing? Yeah, that's the sound of a thousand "content-should-be-free" purists howling in unison.
In a recent survey, the New York Times asked its subscribers whether they would be willing to pay a fee of $2.50 a for access to NYTimes.com, Bloomberg News reported today. The survey stated that "The New York Times website, nytimes.com, is considering charging a monthly fee of $5.00 to access its content, including all its articles, blogs and multimedia."
Under this hypothetical plan, current subscribers to the Times would pay a reduced rate of $2.50 for access.
It's been a bad year for the newspaper industry, to say the least. Ad sales have plummeted; subscription rates have plunged; the sinking economy has taken its toll on an industry already turned on its head by the rise of the Internet. Over the past few months, many outlets have significantly cut back on their print operations.
Remaining papers, such as the Boston Globe, have struggled to deal with declining print ad revenue – much of it lost to online classified sites – while shifting to a web-centric marketing strategy. (In April, the Christian Science Monitor began publishing its daily edition online only.) In March, the Times cut all non-union newsroom salaries by 5 percent – a major blow to an organization that has thus far withstood the worst of the storm.
In 2007, the Times halted its Times Select program, which charged users for access to an assortment of opinion and editorial content. At its peak, 200,000 users paid for the service, generating $10 million a year in revenue for the Times company, according to Bloomberg News.
In a post on editorsweblog.org in September of 2007, Jean Yves Chainon wondered if the closing of Times Select was the end of the paid-content model. "In the digital age of free news, it will be increasingly harder for content providers to generate revenues by making users pay for their product," he wrote. "On the other hand, there will always be specific or niche audiences that are ready to pay to access exclusive content. The question will be whether the price these audiences are willing to pay can sustain the gathering of such exclusive materials, on a regular basis."
Many media critics see the shift to a paid model as necessary for the Times, which has more than 647,695 weekday home delivery subscribers, and a web audience of millions. Here's Gawker's Hamilton Nolan:
Unless anybody has any other bright ideas, this is inevitable, and necessary. There's no way the NYT—or most other papers—can continue to allow their own free website to cannibalize their revenue forever. Print subscription levels will probably never rise again in a meaningful way. Online news is the future. Online ads bring in only a fraction of the revenue of print ads. Therefore, the website has to find another way to generate cash. And that way is charging for content.
Others, like prominent media analyst Jeff Jarvis, have argued that newspapers cannot afford to hide behind a pay wall – "free is a business model (and charging money costs money)," Jarvis has written. In a January column in the Guardian in January, Jarvis argued that traditional newsroom won't last. We can keep propping them up, he says, but eventually newsrooms will be replaced by networks of part-time journalists:
...journalism's business and revenue, like its content, will become collaborative and networked. No one company will control news in a market any more; none can afford to. The question is: how much time is left?