Peter Kafka

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New York Times Online Payment Plan Coming Soon?

new-york-times-building-300x200The New York Times (NYT) has already tried charging people to read part of its Web site. Now, like everyone else in the publishing business, it’s trying to figure out how to charge for online access again.

A decision could come by the end of June, the New York Observer reports, relaying information that executive editor Bill Keller passed on to his staff at a Wednesday meeting (no more tweeting!).

The short version: The Times is mulling two strategies. One would look a lot like the model used by the Financial Times whereby online readers get a certain amount of content for free but are required to pay up beyond that. The other would be akin to the one used by Web 1.0 pioneer Salon–a public radio/TV-style subscription/donation model that lets everyone read the site for free, but gives “members” access to extras.

The long version, from the Observer:

One includes a “meter system,” in which the reader can roam freely on the Web site until hitting a predetermined limit of word-count or pageviews, after which a meter will start running and the reader is charged for movement on the site thereafter. He warned staff at the meeting that this pay model would be “tricky.” If the word-count limit or page-view limit is set too low, it could chase readers off, compromising traffic and advertising revenue. He said the site presently makes “a lot, a lot of money” from digital advertising–though he wouldn’t specify how much–and that executives at the paper believe it is “substantially more” than The Wall Street Journal presently makes on a subscription-based pay model. On the other hand, he said, set these bars too high and there will be little improvement in revenue.

Mr. Keller described the second proposal as a “membership” system. In this model, readers pledge money to the site and are invited into a “New York Times community.” You write a check, you get a baseball cap or a T-shirt (if it’s like Channel Thirteen, a tote bag!), an invite to Times event, or perhaps, like The Economist, access to specialized content on the Web. He said he wouldn’t even be opposed to offering a donor access to a Page One editorial meeting as long as it doesn’t affect the paper competitively.

Recall that the Times was actually able to extract $10 million a year or so from its Times Select experiment in which it forced online readers to pay $50 a year to get access to opinion writers like Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd.

This was back in 2007, when online know-it-alls (um, like me) jeered the paper for “cutting itself off from the conversation,” etc.,¬†and promised that if it only opened itself up to the Web, big ad dollars would come. And actually, the Times has done reasonably well selling display ads–the paper’s online managers say that its pricing for premium ad inventory has held up even during the crash, though classifieds/help-wanted ads have evaporated.

The problem is that the paper now needs much more than $10 million a year to counter its disintegrating print business. Hard to see either of the two strategies described above panning out, but well worth trying.