How The New York Times Should Charge For Content

New York Times Headquarters

Update: The New York Times (NYSE: NYT) announced plans this morning to switch on metering for NYTimes.com beginning 2011.

A storm has been brewing at The New York Times for a while now. Ever since TimesSelect — the paid digital version of the Times — was canceled back in 2007, the “content wants to be free” crowd has danced around its proverbial grave, singing the equivalent of “ding, dong, paid media is dead.”

Now, NYTimes.com is reportedly considering erecting a new pay wall — one presumes a shiner, prettier one than the last wall, but a pay wall nonetheless. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a bad idea whose time has unfortunately come.

First, let’s look at what NYTimes.com risks by shutting off the free flow of its particular mix of cultural elitism. For argument’s sake, let’s accept Compete.com’s view of NYTimes.com at about 15 million visitors per month, compared to the WSJ.com‘s smaller 11-plus million. It’s safe to assume that traffic will go down, even providing that some brand-critical content will remain free (please don’t cut off my David Brooks drip, please). The question is whether the traffic will get cut by 80 percent, as our survey would indicate, or whether it will end up somewhere less damaged, cut, say, by 30 percent — though with far fewer page views per viewer because the only way to keep site visits high is to give select content away for free, but that free content has to have a meter on it that expires after some number of pages, typically five.

As much as I like to pick on media companies when they’re short-sighted, I don’t think such a complaint applies in this case. In the spirit of helping to rebuild this particular media company in the digital era, I want to offer a few pieces of advice to the folks finalizing the details of this shift:

1. Give the highest-profile content away for free. A critical decision will be to determine just how much content you can give away for free without undercutting subscription revenue. Look at your sources of traffic — anything that draws dramatic traffic from abroad is something that builds your international reputation. Give that away. Any traffic that preserves the egos (and the skilled contribution) of specific personalities we will avoid naming, should also be free. And, of course, the front page should be sample-able for free.

2. Make free content sell the value of paid content. But even in these free pages, find a way to let free readers know there’s more to be had, not just elsewhere, but even on those free pages. For example, at WSJ.com, comments can be organized to show only those by paid subscribers, thus eliminating a lot of the idiots who post annoyingly partisan comments or intentionally confrontational stuff. Some people would pay to become a commenter whose comments aren’t automatically marginalized. Others would pay to read only those who are willing to pay that price. Too elitist for you? Um. You’re The New York Times.

3. Brace for impact. Even if you get the balance between free and paid right, traffic will fall. WSJ.com has about two-thirds of your traffic, even though it has 600,000 more paid daily subscribers to its print edition than the Times does. That’s a good metric to shoot for: a quarter as many paid subscribers as print subs, or about 250,000 in your case, with traffic somewhere around 9 million uniques a month (using Compete.com’s metrics here, adjust accordingly). That’s after you rebound from the initial confusion. Of course, advertisers will still panic. Ironically, the drop in traffic will constrict supply, driving ad rates up, but over a smaller reader base. The result will be a reduction in ad revenue of at least 50 percent. Plan for it, send the message internally that there’s no way around this iceberg but to try to plow right through it.

4. Don’t bet on Apple’s tablet to save you. We all know you’re timing this to coincide with Apple’s forthcoming announcement about a media-heavy tablet. While it won’t ride in and save the industry, it can help. Make sure Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) has a way to enable offline access to your online content so that tablet readers on the subway don’t suffer from low bars. And whatever you do, make sure your NYTimes.com subscription is multi-platform — don’t ask readers to pay extra to get the pretty tablet version. Make that a carrot rather than a stick; even the movie industry is learning that it’s not nice to double-dip your customer. Content you buy once should be available everywhere, end of story.

Notice that this advice is directed to NYTimes.com and nobody else. Because there is no other newspaper that we believe can pull this off at this time, even though a majority of newspaper editors are considering it. In fact, other papers like the Washington Post and the LA Times should go on the offensive and try to satisfy as many ad-funded readers as possible, since they’ll have a shot at boasting as many monthly uniques as NYTimes.com.

Rebuilding the media isn’t pretty. You can’t satisfy everyone. But you can satisfy customers with convenient access to good content across multiple platforms. That’s what people are paying for more and more — in video, in music, in books, and, increasingly, in news.

James McQuivey is an analyst at Forrester Research, where he serves, and contributes to the Forrester blog for Consumer Product Strategy professionals.

This article originally appeared in Forrester Research.

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