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@ Media Summit: Sulzberger: Metered Model Is Right Today — But 10 Years From Now, Who Knows?

Just a few weeks after NYTCo (NYSE: NYT) chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and president and CEO Janet Robinson discussed the company’s new metering pay model at our conference, the pair continued to tease out the idea at Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Media Summit 2010.

In a conversation with James Ellis, Bloomberg BW’s assistant managing editor, they also spoke about the role of cost cutting, the lessons of Times Select, and the relationship between the Sulzberger family and outside shareholders.

History repeats itself: Sulzberger said that the “death of newspapers” meme is older than you might realize. “In the 1850s, an editor of the NY Herald wrote that he had just met the death of newspapers. Literature would survive, he said, but newspapers wouldn’t. He had just met the telegraph.”

Cost-cutting: “We’re being selective about hiring — we just hired someone from the Washington Post (NYSE: WPO) yesterday, I believe — and it was hard doing the last newsroom buyouts. But it wasn’t a shock,” said Sulzberger. Robinson, on the size of the company: “It’s something we constantly look at. The communication between the news and business sides, in terms of what everyone has to do to make us profitable, has never been stronger.”

Social media: Ellis asked how journalists at the NYT feel about readers having more direct input into the content. “The question now is not about the two-way conversation between readers and reporters at The Times, the question is how to we expand the conversation outside of the paper and its site.”

Meter model: Robinson said circ revenue is 40 percent of sales dollars, up from 30 percent. When Ellis asked when in 2011 the metering plan would be launched, Sulzberger responded with a smirk: “Early 2011.”

Times Select lessons: Sulzberger reiterated that walling off archives and columnists behind the paywall was a success, that it made money — but it happened when online ads were booming. His point, though, was that there is no set answer, as the economics of media are likely to remain in a constant state of flux. “We believe going to a metered model now is the right thing. But 10 years from now? Who knows?”

Devices and ads: Robinson: “It’s a little early to predict what the ad experience will be on Amazon’s Kindle or Apple’s iPad. I do think, just as media companies are working hard at making their apps an enjoyable and unique experience, there’s an opportunity for marketers to do that for their ad experiences. Look at our website now compared to a few years ago. Advertisers have begun showing that they’re up to the task of being more creative with their web ads.”

Shareholders: Ellis tried to find a way to ask about Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim — who just surpassed Warren Buffett and Bill Gates as Forbes’ richest man — and the importance of his 6.5 percent stake in the NYTCo. “I’m confused about the notion of outside investors and how you balance that with family control,” Ellis said. “We have a term for outside investors,” Sulzberger responded. “We call them shareholders. We have two classes of stock. Stop me if it gets too complicated.” Later on, he added: “This is not a company that’s going to be sold or split and shareholders know that going in.”

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