NYT’s Keller: We’re Looking For Ways To Charge For Online Content Again


In a Q&A with readers concerned about the precarious financial state of the newspaper this week, NYT Editor Bill Keller was asked if the paper would consider charging for online content again. Keller says that the company isn’t making any new plans. But, as he said in the exchange, “a lively, deadly serious discussion continues within The Times about ways to get consumers to pay for what we make.” Keller also defended TimesSelect, the online offering that put the paper’s columnists and archives behind a pay wall. The service was abandoned after two years in September 2007 and it looks like the concept associated with TimesSelect will not be returning. Instead, the discussions revolve around four of the most popular themes: subscription model, micropayments, revenue sharing via devices like Amazon’s Kindle and the non-profit route.

Information wants to get paid: Keller rejected the concept that says “information wants to be free.” The exception is “really good information,” such as the kind of comprehensive coverage offered by the NYT. “TimesSelect generated something like $10 million a year, which was real money, but in the end the company calculated that we’d be better off taking down the wall and letting the flood of additional visitors to the Web site attract advertising dollars. The lesson of that experiment, however, was not that readers won’t pay for content. A lot of people in the news business, myself included, don’t buy as a matter of theology that information “wants to be free.” Really good information, often extracted from reluctant sources, truth-tested, organized and explained


Tom Matrullo

None of these monetizing "solutions" address the underlying problem: the NYT, despite its worldwide deployment of reporters and stringers, its vast resources, its years of profitability, its entirely free website offering current news and opinion, does not command the respect and trust of people who care about what is happening in the world. Until it addresses this signal mission failure – to be something people want to have – all the efforts to be paid for being consumed will remain ineffectual. And – by the way – JSTOR is simply a wall placed between human knowledge and potential knowers. If it were to adopt a micropayment system – pennies, or fractions of cents per view of articles – it would earn revenue and be serving the public good.

Nigel Eccles

WSJ is fully indexed by Google and search (and social media) visitors can access full articles. The only thing you can't access is WSJ's navigation structure. I think that is a very good model which NYT could replicate.

I like the model that Tim and Carolyn advocate. Could it be done through a newspaper consortium or would it have to be a separate third party to get past anti-trust legislation?

Chris Edwards

Compuserve had such an umbrella subscription model years ago – I think it was partly pay per view and partly subscription but the money went onto one monthly statement and transaction on the credit card. Then the Web and AOL/TimeWarner happened and Compuserve fell apart.

I'm not sure that Keller is talking simply about Google indexing in the bit about "the search function". That worked just fine under Times Select, as far as I could tell. I think what he means is that, if you could figure out a way to provide the stories that get searched for a lot to irregular users but still keep a subscription package going, that would be their ideal. The Google "first hit for free" scheme goes some way toward that but there are plenty of flaws in that.

Pascal Juergens

"But if Web advertising takes a long dive — or if some clever engineer figures out how to decouple a paid Web site from the search function — a subscription model might be worth a closer look.”

Actually that's already done. Look at how academic database JSTOR has results appearing on Google, but users get a crippled landing page. As far as I remember, this specific constellation is a special cooperation between the two.

(more: cf. http://scilibrarian.wordpress.com/2006/03/01/reference-linking-in-jstor-search-jstor-content-in-google-and-google-scholar/ and http://oieahc.wm.edu/uncommon/125/online.cfm)


I like the direction that Tim O'Reilly is pointing. I even buy books from third parties through amazon.com simply because it gives me single account management and their assurance around difficulties I might have.

On the other hand, there is something about the NYT as a newspaper of record that has me want to see the past material be indexed by search engines and retrievable (thing school students, researching student papers, and whatever someone is seeking information about, and the quality that NYT brings). Deep liinking to archival material would be OK.

That should bring more advertising views along with it.

The next question is, what is the value added that would draw revenue through a syndication or aggregation model. Perhaps time-value material, notifications, ability to subscribe to individual columnists and sections, something where there is a sustaining benefit with someone having focused attention on new material. There is probably no way to prevent someone else from engaging in such an offering directly, but it would seem licensing and revenue sharing could be worked out. Probably scary.

But I think two-tiered is somehow the way to go. Finding a division that preserves the authority and appeal of the NYT and has broad exposure of people to its quality content is the trick to ponder.

Yuvi Kochar

I really like the "Cable for News" idea Carolyn and Tim propose.

However, the question is how will the currently free content be taken to a paid model. All content producers have to participate. It is a bit easier for books as books were never given away free on the internet. It will be harder to charge for content that the customer has received (practically) free for over 100 years.

Maybe, magazines need to start on this model? Or maybe, customers will be jolted into paying when they start missing what they were getting tor free.

Jeremy Kagan

This can be implemented easily by the NYT, and painlessly for readers who may not want to enter their credit card details on line, or who may not have them.

My company's alternative online payment mechanism is geared specifically to enabling payment for "one-off" single purchases of special articles and other low priced digital goods.

It is called OneTouch Online Purchasing, and it is currently available in 26 countries. We are soon launching with partners in the USA to charge prepaid cards, telecom accounts, and other cash alternatives that consumers already use.

Tim O'Reilly

Carolyn's got it right. The aggregate subscription model that we saw on Cable television was the inspiration for our very successful subscription service for computer and business books, Safari Books Online, which now contains over 6000 books from hundreds of publishers, all for one monthly price. Revenue is allocated out to books and authors on a usage basis, and so publishers are competing within the service for the reader, but the customer only has to pay one provider.

Safari now provides nearly 20% of our book revenue at O'Reilly, and is our second largest distribution channel after Amazon. It's definitely a model that newspapers ought to look at.

Carolyn Kay

I think the only subscription model that will work is many subscriptions under one umbrella. I'm not going to pay the New York Times AND the Washington Post AND the Chicago Tribune for individual subscriptions, but I'd be willing to pay one subscription fee for all three plus others.

That's the way we pay for cable television, why wouldn't it work for online content?

Carolyn Kay

Nigel Eccles

I'm surprised he's asking if a clever engineer can get his site fully indexed while still charging for access. WSJ do exactly that. Maybe he should try speaking to his engineers.

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