Stephen Foley: New York Times puts up an online paywall – but are readers ready to pay?

The paper is competing against free sites and state-sponsored rivals. Probably only a few people are likely to be encouraged to pay for an online subscription


Outlook This coming Monday is a Very Big Day for journalism. Or so the folks over here would have us believe. This is the day that The New York Times, probably the most influential and certainly the best newspaper in the US, finally puts up its online paywall. But will anyone pay?

The paper's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, has set pretty minimal goals. Not for him the headbanger approach of Rupert Murdoch, who has locked all of The Times of London's content away without allowing so much as the flash ofa petticoat.

The New York Times' approach will not ever charge people who come to the site by following links shared on Facebook or Twitter, and the paywall does not go up until readers reach 20 articles approached directly in a given month. The aim is to keep its writers part of the great conversation on the web, while asking people for whom the Times is at the centre of their digital lives to pay for the privilege.

The newspaper has struck the balance exquisitely.

And I'm still not sure it will make much difference.

Let's leave aside the fact that there are numerous ways to get around the paywall. (When the paper began a trial run in Canada earlier this month, Twitter accounts sprang up to broadcast links to all the content on the Times' site.)

The problem is more fundamental, and it stems from this: news reporters often confuse the (very large) societal value of what they do, with the (minimal) monetary value of what they do. The capture and release of four New York Times journalists in Libya has been a timely reminder of why serious, well-resourced newspapers stand out on the web, and how The New York Times is justifying its move to charge online readers. This is the "high-quality journalism" of which Mr Sulzberger wrote when he appealed to readers to see paying up as "an investment in The Times".

One of the paper's bloggers, Nate Silver, just did an analysis of the number of times the phrase "the New York Times reported" appears on other news sites. Only the Associated Press's original reporting is cited more often (in fact, the top 30 is dominated by "old media" broadcasters and newspapers, including this one.)

But, as Mr Silver himself points out, boots-on-the-ground reporting has always been a "loss leader". It burnishes the brand and establishes the organisation's credentials for intelligence and seriousness, and, yes, it is vital to an informed democracy and for our global citizenship. Rarely have people been willing to pay for it directly. It has always been part of a package that pulls it together with op-ed pontificating, useful listings and a potpourri of other diverting content. The package is the product.

As it happens, when you look at things this way, The New York Times scores more highly than any other US news organisation. Its site is bigger, more comprehensive and more intelligent than any other, and better designed, too. As a one-stop-shop for educating yourself about the world and enlivening your day, it is unrivalled. Except that we are no longer in the age of the one-stop-shop.

We don't need to rehearse the reasons again. Readers can hop around anywhere on the web to get their entertainment for free. The deciders of what is headline news are no longer the greybeards of newsrooms but the appliers of hashtags to Twitter postings. There is plenty of expert commentary and breaking news in the amateur blogosphere. Meanwhile, even in boots-on-the-ground reporting, The New York Times is up against free sites and state-sponsored rivals.

I suspect that the paper will encourage very few people to pay up for a subscription when they hit their 20 articles limit. The people most likely to do so are probably already subscribers to the print edition, in which case they will already have free online access. What it might provide is a chance of persuading any print subscribers who want to cancel to at least stay with a lower-cost online-only subscription. But I find it hard to credit that Monday takes us into the brave new era of paid-for journalism that many in the news business are hoping.

The best that can really be said of The New York Times paywall policy is that – unlike Mr Murdoch's, which seems to have removed The Times of London from the national debate in the UK and may even have contributed to its precipitous print sales decline – it does no harm.



New York's spoofers have an app for that

Bubblyness in the tech sector. Color Labs raised $41m (£26m) this week from venture capitalists, before it had even finished making its little iPhone app, a straightforward piece of kit that creates a "mobile social network" for sharing stuff with the people around you, friends and strangers alike.

Quite what it needs $41m for is a mystery, since it will either catch on or it won't. But it has "social" and "app" in the pitch and is the brainchild of Bill Nguyen, who sold his last start-up to Apple, so it checks most boxes for investment. Apart from the one about having a chance of making money.

Actually, the investment has caused quite a furore. A spoof investor presentation (for a fake company called Color.xxx; business plan: "We're gonna flip this bitch like Flipper") is doing the rounds. The creators of Color.xxx, a gang of New York City entrepreneurs and developers, were even having a launch party for their fake company last night.

It gives you some hope. It can't possibly be a bubble if it is being satirised, right?

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