News geeks have been all a flutter this week after news surfaced that the New York Times will be reintroducing charges for its online content.

Confirmed yesterday in the Times, the announcement has sparked a mountain of speculation about whether the US’ most popular newspaper site can pull its 17 million monthly readers through a pay wall.

The Times flirted with pay walls in the late 1990s for foreign readers, then again in 2005 when they brought in a subscription service for their popular columns and editorials called Times Select. Two years later it went free again with the pundits suggesting the revenue from subscriptions just couldn’t match the advertising income from free content.

The move comes after Rupert Murdoch vowed last August to shake up the media industry by levying charges for access to NewsCorp’s stable of online news sites following its $3.7 billion loss in 2009.  While Murdoch’s prediction that “…if we’re successful, we’ll be followed fast by other media” might seem fairly obvious, it seems the Times isn’t content just to be a follower.

The way the new system will work is very simple, for some commentators, too simple. Readers will get a certain number of articles per month they can read for free. After they’ve passed this limited they need to pay for a subscription, which then entitles them to view as many articles as they want.  The metered system looks very similar to that already in place by London’s Financial Times, which subsequently saw it giving a prompt slap on the back to its Trans-Atlantic competitor.

One of the benefits of the system, as Times columnist David Carr writes, is that the number of articles a visitor gets for free can be modified depending on shifts in the market for content and advertising.

By building a metered system, the executives have installed a dial on the huge, heaving content machine of The New York Times. Access can be gradually ramped up or down depending on macro trends in the market.

Presumably, the price of a subscription could also be adjusted, though as Felix Salmon points out, this would be a trickier ask than shifting the dial on the number of free articles.

As the pay wall won’t come into effect until next year, this also gives the Ochs-Sulzberger mob some time to suss the lay of the land and modify their pricing structure depending on how readers react to whatever pricing structure NewsCorp introduces.

As The Guardian argues such a model has the benefit of allowing the Times to charge their higher use visitors who value their content enough to pay for it, whilst still allowing Jill and Jo Blogs to access any articles they like for free. (so long as they don’t get too click happy)

But blogger and Guardian columnist Jeff Jarvis says the system will push readers into an awkward economic decision every time they think about accessing a Times article:

I would not use The Times less because I like it less, because I want to punish it. I love The Times. I read it every day. What I’m saying is that by metering, The Times will have me make a new economic decision every time I want to read a story: Is this unique content I will get only here (there is a good deal of that) or is this commodity information I can get elsewhere (BBC, Reuters, Washington Post, Politico, TechCrunch…). The Times then restricts our relationship and it is in that relationship that it has to find value.

The obvious work around, as Jack Shafer point out, is for people to simply register multiple emails to increase their monthly allowance. But will Times devotees actually bother to do this?

Felix Salmon argues the Times shouldn’t worry about people trying to scam the system, and should get on with building the most user-friendly metering system they can:

The fact is that there will always be people trying to game the system — and they will always be in the minority. If and when that minority becomes very large, the NYT can revisit its paywall design. But in the first instance, it shouldn’t worry too much about them. It’s the same idea as spam filters and comment moderation on blogs: they should be implemented only after comment spam becomes a problem, not before.

More existentially, C.W. Anderson from the Nieman Journalism Lab warns that the Times will face an identity crisis as it tries to maintain the balance between niche and mass audiences:

Putting up a meter represents the ultimate compromise between visions of news that are “mass” (“we want everyone to read this”) and niche (“we want to be unique enough that we will get unique people to pay”), because it ultimately amounts to a tax on the heavy users.

Putting up walls around your content means you can charge the niche but must sacrifice the illusion that you speak for and to everyone.

Will it work, or will it simply turn people away? Only the Times will tell.

Peter Fray

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