Sulzberger: $40 Million Estimate For Paywall Cost Is ‘Vastly Wrong’

Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that the New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT) spent $40 million or more to build the digital paywall that went live late last month. Not so, insists Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. During a Q&A at Columbia University, Sulzberger told interviewer Bill Grueskin he wouldn’t get into the specifics but “I’m happy to tell you it’s vastly wrong, it was much less. Don’t use that number. It’s not accurate.” Why not ask for a correction? “We already did.”

But by skipping the specifics — any of them — Sulzberger missed an opportunity to set the record straight. Instead of saying “don’t use that number,” why not follow the example of, say, Rupert Murdoch and News Corp (NSDQ: NWS). by talking about the actual cost of the investment? (It was a little confusing at first, but News Corp confirmed it expects to spend $30 million on The Daily through the end of this fiscal year, with a run rate of nearly $500,000 a week.)

Sulzberger also declined to offer any numbers when it comes to subscribers, saying it was too soon but that the company would provide some details eventually. At another point, asked about complaints that the pay plan is too complex, he urged people to be patient. Noting that the company was able to tweak the system between the laucnh in Canad and the U.S.-global launch 10 days later, Sulzberger said: “We’re going to learn, adapt, make it simpler. But I don’t agree that it’s too complex. It’s new. Let it breathe for a little bit before you make judgment.”

CEO Janet Robinson said the company has been fielding requests from other papers and will work with them. Asked about the decision to make full digital access free for print subscribers of any edition, Robinson said, “We didn’t make this decision to bolster print; we made to create a new revenue stream.” Any boost from people looking for a way to get full access to through mobile, tablet and the site for a lower price than the full digital subscription is a “side benefit.”

She also talked a little bit bit about the hybrid pay model NYTCO’s second-largest paper, the Boston Globe, is planning to launch later this year. The Globe will have two sites — will remain free with some content from the paper and will be subscription.

We’ll post the video as soon as it’s available, but for now here’s the full audio.

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