Sulzberger: App Sales Prove News Consumers Are Willing To Pay

The rise of tablets and apps has helped pave the way for the New York Times and potentially many other newspapers to charge for content, said Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the company’s chairman and publisher, in an interview with CEO Janet Robinson at the Paley Center this morning (video is embedded below). “This is a bet about the future, which is moving more and more to smartphones, tablets and mobile apps,” he said to Paley’s Pat Mitchell. Meanwhile, he tended to downplay concerns that the “purposely porous” paywall, as Robinson put it, might be too easy to get around, suggesting that most people wouldn’t attempt to game the system, maybe just a few “high school kids and people out of work.”

High school kids? Perhaps not. But the NYT is continuing to bet on college students as a growing readership, even as newspaper consumers tend to skew older in general. Sulzberger noted that about one-in-five college students read the NYT, meaning that this specific newspaper stands apart.

Still, a lot of people of all ages are reading blogs and other online outlets. And that presented some worried thoughts from Sulzberger on the state of general interest news and original reporting. For example, even many traditional newspapers have cut back on national and foreign bureaus, he noted, in case anyone missed the news this week about the four NYT journalists who were held and ultimately released from captivity in Libya.

Asked about the competition from the likes of The Huffington Post, which has attracted an online readership equal to if not more than the’s, Sulzberger dismissed the notion of a popularity contest as a way to determine value to readers and advertisers. “We never had the largest circulation as a newspaper — there’s USA Today who was often on top,” he said. “Not that I’m comparing USA Today and Huffington Post. But I think that Huffington Post has done a great job of creating community. That said, I don’t think their content compares to ours.”

Sulzberger mostly avoided the battle last week between HuffPo founder and editor Arianna Huffington and NYT Editor Bill Keller over a Sunday Times magazine column dismissing the value of aggregation as represented by HuffPo. Incidentally, Arianna will have her say in a Sunday Times letter, Sulzberger said.

Back on the topic of the “death of original news,” Paley Center’s Max Robin’s mentioned Guardian News & Media editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger’s view that there’s greater access to great news gathering than ever before. Given the panoply of great news sources, is the pay model that the (NYSE: NYT) has been engineering the way to save news? And will others follow the NYT down this path? Sulzberger did acknowledge that there are great papers around the world, but not all of that is translatable to the’s model.

That said, Robinson added, “Many newspapers have asked us about our preparation for the pay model and we’re more than happy to share what we learn with them.”

The idea of comparing the NYT and the Wall Street Journal as direct rivals since Rupert Murdoch bought Dow Jones (NSDQ: NWS) has become a regular feature on the media landscape. With the WSJ starting to sell single-issue copies through its iPad app today only makes the focus on these two more intense. Asked about the rivalry between them, Robinson, who has answered this question many times before, said “Their moves haven’t impacted us from an advertising or circulation point. Our perspective is that we want people to evolve and contribute to the general news category. As Arthur noted, we have a lot of competitors. If we were to just look at the Journal as our main competitor, we would be making a very big mistake.”

Lastly, Sulzberger and Robinson defended the idea of the pay model they’re introducing as a way of rewarding the print edition’s subscribers, since those readers will have complete access across all platforms. “We’ve been told that once someone is a subscriber for two years, we have them for life,” Sulzberger said. “The number of people who had been subscribing for two years or more a few years ago was 650,000; it’s now 820,000.”

Robinson added: “Print is still extremely profitable. So you have a critical balance that makes sure we cut where we need to cut and invest where we need to. But we shouldn’t walk away from the print product and from those loyalists.”

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