January 27, 2010

After the pay-wall: Will working at the Times still be a dream job?

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The <em>New York Times</em> is watching you ....Last week The New York Times announced the installation of a metered pay-wall for its website beginning in 2011, and we asked here what precisely this might mean. Though it’s difficult to say with any assurance, we wrote that it’s indeed possible for the Times to change its business model and successfully start charging customers for content by revamping its website and adding new free offerings (for customers who refuse to pay), something that it’s already doing.

One thing we didn’t consider is whether the staff of the Times will want to continue working at a paper where the most important stories are hidden behind a pay-wall and, as a result, reach a much smaller audience. The Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff says no. In a comment posted below his recent piece on the Times announcement, Wolff writes that Times writers “aren’t paid enough to go from an audience of more than 10 million down to an audience of 225,000–it diminishes their brand and their interest in being part of the Times.” He cites the disintegration of the Times’ previous attempt at a paid online model, Times Select, which charged customers for opinion pieces and was attacked by some of the Times’ marquee columnists, who in Wolff’s telling, “rebelled” against the system.

Exactly how large will the drop in circulation be for New York Times writers? Wolff says the drop could be as much as 98%, if you follow the above numbers, or, more optimistically in this piece, about “90% of its traffic.” It’s quite possible that the drop in traffic and influence will be much less. The Wall Street Journal, though a specialty paper with a unique business model, maintains huge traffic numbers despite its pay-wall. And then there’s the question of whether the paper can avoid a significant drop in online circulation, as we suggest above.

One bad sign for the Times: Newsday, the Long Island newspaper which just launched an online pay-wall, has failed dramatically. According to a report in the New York Observer, only 35 people — yes, only 35 — have signed up for its new subscription service, which was launched three months ago. However, as the report notes, the paper has maintained an audience of 1.5 million unique visitors by giving free access to Optimum Cable subscribers. (Optimum Cable and Newsday are both owned by James Dolan.)

Whatever the circulation drop turns out to be, premium content will be seen by fewer eyeballs. And it follows that the Times, and its writers, will be less influential. And that may well be the end of the Times as we know it, if not for the reasons everyone is predicting.

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.

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