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Summary:

In a keynote at SXSW Sunday, NYT columnist David Carr recalled the launch of the paper’s paywall during SXSW two years ago. “The theologists of free,” he said, believe that “you keep things free, and eventually somebody will clack two coconuts together and you’ll get rich.”

NYT newspapers
photo: Getty Images / Mario Tama

Here’s how things used to work, New York Times media columnist David Carr said in a keynote at SXSW Sunday: People would leave college, get a job, get married, reproduce, go to IKEA and “start to worry what the school system was about.” So they’d subscribe to a newspaper.

Nowadays, things are different: People “may practice the art of reproduction, but they don’t do a great deal of it … they might not get a job. And they might not buy a house and they might not go to IKEA and they might not need to know what’s going on in the school system … the other thing they might not do: Get a paper.”

Carr recalled being at SXSW two years ago when the New York Times debuted its paywall. “I remember some of the things people said,” he said. “The theologists of free — the spiritual belief in the power of free. [These people believe that] you keep things free, and eventually somebody will clack two coconuts together and you’ll get rich.

“We were told that people would never give us money, that we priced it way too expensively … the fact that it was leaky was viewed as silly, the fact that you could do a workaround was viewed as silly. We did that on purpose. If you like it so much that you’re willing to do a hack around a URL just to get a peek under our dress … eventually you’re going to give us some money.”

Carr, who described his job as “writing about people who write about people who do things,” said that metrics inspire “neurosis” in him. “Any time you write about newspapers, it’s click death,” he said. “I decided that, to do my job, I can’t always pay attention to metrics … I don’t want to do an Andrew Sullivan. He’s a brave and wonderful guy and he is totally kicking ass, but I don’t want to be out there all by myself with a tip jar.

“I’d rather be holding hands with Nicholas Kristof and Maureen Dowd … I can remember when we first looked at a paywall in 2005, Times Select. They were going to put only the business columnists and the op-ed columnists behind the paywall. I’d been a business columnist for, like, two months and I was like, Jesus Christ, don’t put me back there. … This time I’m holding hands with the entire wingspan of the New York Times, we’re all holding hands together jumping across the line, and it’s going pretty well.”

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  1. People need content. Ignorance is more expensive than a NY Times subscription.

    1. Fantastic comment! Completely agree…

    2. Well said, Bob! After finally canceling my print edition of the NYT, I tried all the free alternatives online for about a year. Finally broke down and paid for exactly the reasons Bob gives.

  2. Greg Golebiewski Monday, March 11, 2013

    And I remember when paidContent was against paid content and even published a study that was to convince everyone who thought differently that charging for online content would never work.
    Well, times are a-changin’…

    1. Greg, do you have a link?

      1. Greg Golebiewski SandiB Tuesday, March 12, 2013

        Sure. Here it is
        http://paidcontent.org/2009/09/21/419-pcukharris-poll-only-five-percent-of-readers-would-pay-for-online-news/

        Please note that according to the authors of the study 5% people willing to pay for online content was considered “dismal.” Now paywalls convert 1 to 2 percent of a site’s traffic, and this is called “enormous success.”

      2. Greg, great link, thanks — I didn’t see it years ago. (Couldn’t reply directly to that comment for some reason, so I’m putting my reply here.)

        I’m the founder of a popular college sports web site, an unofficial site that is not affiliated with the university we cover. We have been charging for content — not all of our content is pay, just about half of it — for over a decade now, and we found exactly what that article says: about five percent of our monthly visitors are subscribers.

        And yes, we consider that to be an unqualified success. We’re very happy with that number, and although we’re not getting rich, it’s enough to employ several people full-time, with benefits.

      3. Greg Golebiewski SandiB Tuesday, March 12, 2013

        Great, and thank you for sharing your success

        Our experience is that publishers who employ a combination of subscription and on-demand payments can convert close to 9% of their visits into paid transactions. With certain additional option the conversion rate can go up to nearly 20%. So there is a room for improvement.

        I was just saying that back in 2009, when the paidContent.uk/Harris study was published, its results were called “a warning to publishers considering a paid content strategy.” Such “warnings” cost the industry billions of dollars. Now media experts like Ken Doctor ask, Why weren’t the paywalls introduced earlier? Well, why indeed? Or, a more appropriate question should be, Why the experts weren’t listening to the few publishers like yourself or those served by us (Znak it!), who had successful paid content strategies and business models? Why do they still ignore the good examples and keep saying that online readers will not pay for quality content in any significant numbers?

  3. Mr Carr seems an inspiring chap.

    Bob said, “People need content. Ignorance is more expensive than a NY Times subscription”.

    Yes, especially if you have children.

    ______

  4. I believe that the NY Times is a much different animal than a typical paper. It’s located in the business hub of the universe and people in Atlanta, Houston, Boston, Philly, etc often come from NY…and, although they live away from NY now, they still want the connection to their home newspaper.

    The Boston Globe is failing miserably and most papers are not doing well because they don’t have the “pull” of a NY paper.

    Frankly, even the “success” of the NYT is a far cry from the old days. If these papers could put more under the pay wall hood, they’d have a great chance. For example, if they offered other subscription options for other products. They could do a music service…they could do ID Theft, or books on tape…or, any number of things. You wrap different things of value together and put it under the hood…now, you can charge a lot more each month and bundle the content with the other subscription items.
    That is a great path but I’m not sure the innovative mindset is there…these people complain, they look for the holy grail, and yet they shoot down 90% of the untried ideas that they are presented with…
    The potential for a major consumer portal is there…and it’s the perfect place for it.

  5. Good comment, bralinshan. Definitely wish I had a time machine to enjoy the surprise changes of just 25 years from now.

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