The New York Times needs an online impresario to help it pay its bills

The New York Times should indeed use its website to generate more revenue – but not by charging for any part of its presently all-free daily report. Executive Editor Bill Keller’s recent ruminations on the touchy subject of paid content have led to speculation that the dearly departed Times Select will be reincarnated in some more palatable form. Times Select required users to start paying for the paper’s columnists and some other stories. It threw in as a sweetener the paper’s archives going back to the 19th century. But most of the millions of nytimes.com users decided they wouldn’t pay for content they’d been getting for free.

A confidential memo from multimedia publishing pioneer Steve Brill obtained by Romenesko argues that the Times should “[flip] the Web’s lethal dynamics” and start charging for online content. Under Brill’s elaborate pricing scheme – you have to read his whole, alternately maddening and inspired memo – nytimes.com visitors would pay $55 a year to get access to all content. Search engines and aggregation sites would continue to get free access to the headline and first paragraph of each story – to help keep nytimes.com relevant as an information source on the Internet. Brill, who unsuccessfully tried to sell paid content with his Brill’s Content during the dot.com boom/bust, acknowledges in his memo “all of this may seem unrealistic,” but nonetheless concludes, “There is no alternative.”

Times Select was a bust, as was Brill’s Content. But there’s another way for the Times to exploit the potential of its website to raise needed revenue that advertising by itself can’t bring. Why doesn’t the Times mobilize its redoubtable 1,300-person-strong newsroom to start producing added-value online content for which, I’ll bet, a good fraction of nytimes.com users would pay a monthly fee? A lot of the content would help out-of-town visitors make their trips to NYC and other cities more interesting and even memorable. I spelled out some content specifics for what I called TimesPlus in an OJR article last December.

The Times is already half way there in producing added value beyond the daily report – and for which it rightly charges (and finds willing buyers). Except you can’t find it online.

There’s the New York Times Travel Show – Feb. 6-8 this year at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center – for which tickets cost $15. The Times charges as much from $30 to $65 ($100 for “VIP” seating) for lectures, musical performances and other events at TimesCenter, the popular multi-purpose venue in the New York Times Building. Those events, and others like them, could be re-purposed as part of the multi-media TimesPlus subscription package. After all, millions of out-of-town nytimes.com users can’t go to the Javits Center or TimesCenter.

To make TimesPlus happen, the paper needs to hire an online Sol Hurok-type impresario – I doubt there’s any such person on the premises now – who could figure out how to creatively unlock all the under-used talent in the newsroom – and maybe in other departments at the paper. One Hurokian gambit might be for the Times to persuade Broadway and other theater producers to permit video clips of their shows to be part of the TimesPlus package. What a draw that would be to lure subscribers. With the theatrical industry facing shrinking audiences in what is likely to be a long-term economic crunch, producers might see such a deal as a win-win.

The annual bill for the Times daily news report is above $200 million, according to one recent estimate. If just 10 percent of the website’s 20 million unique visitors signed up for TimesPlus – at, say, $100 a year – that would pay for a big chunk of the news, which Executive Editor Keller rightly says comes only through “hard, expensive, sometimes dangerous work.”

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]

Comments

  1. It’s critical that newspaper managers consider Tom’s viewpoint, as well as Clay Shirky’s excellent essay when contemplating paid content plans.

    Your needs, as a publisher, mean nothing to your audience. Your ability to meet the audience’s needs is everything.

    Too many publishers are acting like entitled monopolists. The new, competitive Internet information marketplace took their income away, so now they want someone else to replace it. Well, tough. You’re not monopolists anymore. You need to compete with other information sources, including many doing journalism, and to provide a superior product (information) at a competitive price.

    Billions of dollars of advertising income remain available from aggressive companies that see this economy as an opportunity to build market share, and put competitors out of business. Readers are demanding, and consuming, more information media than ever before. The ad-supported business model still works.

    But it does not work at the margins of a monopolist anymore. Don’t blame the Internet, or the market, for newspapers’ woes. Blame the managers who failed to see and respond to this market, and who larded newspapers with debt loads and corporate structures unsustainable in a competitive economy.

  2. 24.155.108.38 says:

    I completely agree. Coming from a more B2B perspective, monetizing something like The New York Times is going to require some truly out of the box ideas. Seems like leveraging the brand is the first place to start. Using the brand to create content blessed by NYT is the key.

  3. A big brand name “The Newyork Times” may worth good subsequently,as I think even after, the dismal situation occured presently.It is failure of the management wingss who are responsible for misleading the great concern.Curtailment and control of huge recurring expenditure within the concern,is required indispensably.Moreover, http://www.nytimes.com could be used opportunistically to earn more revenues through Ad selling.

  4. Hey Tom,

    I hate to be the guy who pooh-poohs without offering alternatives, but seriously, have you done the math on TimesPlus?

    If 10 percent of our 20 million unique users signed up, that would be 2 million subscribers, paying (let’s be optimistic) $100 per year, generating $200 million in revenue. Sounds good. (By comparison, NYT co. generated $350 million just in online ad revenue, just to give you some idea of scale.)

    But let’s look at the cost. Setting aside the costs of creating the TimesPlus card, the databases you mention, the partnerships with New York restaurants, etc., members are given the option of submitting 5 questions per year, which will be answered personally (and, presumably, in a timely manner) by a knowledgeable New York Times staffer.

    Here’s where this idea spins off the rails. If all 2 million TimesPlus subscribers ask all five of those questions, that means every single member of The New York Times newsroom would be responsible for answering about 8,300 per year, something like 160 per week, 32 per day.

    That’s assuming we have everyone involved. That’s Bill Keller, our foreign bureaus, our national correspondents, our entire copy desk, photo desk, graphics… everyone down to the rawest news clerk.

    Oh, and it assumes no one ever takes a vacation, an even distribution of question “traffic” and that the topical mix of questions matches the available staff to answer them — none of which will be logically true.

    I suspect we’ll get more questions directed to the culture and dining sections than, say, the foreign desk. I also would assume we’ll get spikes in question traffic around tourist high seasons.

    Even if you assume not everyone will use this service, the numbers aren’t remotely workable.

    I understand the need to think “outside the box” and so forth for solutions to the industry’s serious economic woes, and TimesPlus is a well-meaning attempt to do just that. But, frankly, it’s an idea that just isn’t workable.

  5. Tom Grubisich says:

    Aron,

    I did enough math to anticipate the same numbers you cite, and they don

  6. well you have commented the right thing i have also seen many websites which are highly authoritative.Just like new york times