The paywall debate: The challenge of charging

The publisher of The New York Times, in a letter to readers, detailed the specifics of their latest paywall attempt Thursday.

The two main points:
1. Users can view up to 20 stories (including video, slideshows and other multimedia content) a month.
2. Stories you are linked to from blogs, social networking sites and the like will not count against the 20 story limit.

The Times is testing this approach on Canadian users now and it will expand to U.S. and the rest of global readers March 28.

“It’s an important step that we hope you will see as an investment in The Times,” wrote Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., “one that will strengthen our ability to provide high-quality journalism to readers around the world and on any platform.”

From a business standpoint he may be right. Newspapers’ current model isn’t working and they have to pay for all that great journalism.

Now for the BUT.

The Times attempted something similar to this and failed with TimesSelect, returning columnist content to free in 2007 after two years of behind a paywall.

This is what then-Times executive Vivian Schiller (we won’t get into what’s happened to her since) was quoted by Reuters as saying of the decision to end TimesSelect: “We now believe by opening up all our content and unleashing what will be millions and millions of new documents, combined with phenomenal growth, that that will create a revenue stream that will more than exceed the subscription revenue.”

So the logic then was to increase potential ad revenue by increasing the potential audience. Now it’s to do the opposite. It’s been pretty well established that putting up a paywall decreases views and thus decreases advertising revenue.

Then there is the other issue that so often gets overlooked: The is hardly the only source for news. Many other sites, particularly those run by television networks have no incentive to charge for content. They never have. Savvy news consumers can simply go to or or a myriad of other sites to get essentially the same news.

Content is so widely available that, except for very specific stories, users don’t need The New York Times as much as The New York Times needs the audience for advertising. But legacy media, particularly media organizations with a proud history, have a hard time recognizing that.

That is a long way around to make my connection to television news and the challenge of paywalls.

For all of the other newspapers in cities across the country that have three, four or five television stations or more producing news and running their own websites, the news of the day is readily available for free. All a paywall will do is push people to other sources. No one likes to pay for something they can get for free someplace else.

Back to the Times, the decision to allow all users to read stories they are linked to makes their entire paywall moot, anyways.

If I really want to read a particular Times story and don’t want to pay, all I’d have to do is google the headline and find it linked from somewhere else and get it that way. That would just take a few seconds and not cost $15-$35 a month like the Times.

About Aaron Chimbel

Aaron Chimbel, a five-time Emmy Award winner, is an assistant professor of professional practice at TCU.

Before returning to TCU in 2009, Chimbel worked at WFAA-TV in Dallas, where he won five Emmy Awards and a national Edward R. Murrow Award. He was hired, likely, as the first person at any local television station to produce original video content for the Web. He was the station's "MoJo" or mobile journalist before becoming the station


  1. The existence of this ‘hole’ in the Times’ (sort-of) paywall – unlimited views on stories read from following links – leads me to suspect that this isn’t a straight paywall scheme, but a somewhat cynical attempt to extract a few extra bucks from readers who cling to the old newspaper publishing model for getting their news.

    This piece prompted me to look at the NYT front page for what seems like the first time in months. I simply don’t use newspaper website front pages to access their content any more. They’re bloated, unusable messes. I simply follow the Twitter feeds of the publications that interest me and get my news from them. (I will admit to check the BBC News front page. It’s the only major news front page I find clean and usable.)

    I suspect that many one-time newspaper readers have done the same. The Times is smart in not cutting off those readers – to them, nothing will change with this new pay scheme, and the Times’ traffic and public profile won’t suffer as a result, either.

    But what about those folks who cling to the old model of the newspaper front page (in print or online) as the gateway to the day’s news? Well, if those folks are married to the old model for getting news, perhaps they might be enticed to “renew their vows” with the old way of paying for it, too.

    That suggests to me the public broadcasting model: Accept that there will be freeloaders, and accomodate them, but try to appeal to your most loyal audience members to pay to help you keep the content flowing.

    I suspect that the audience that the Times is trying to convert probably overlaps significantly with the folks who do contribute to NPR and PBS, so this could be smart marketing for the Times.

    Could be, but isn’t. If the Times wants to go that way, it should go all-in. Times managers should be more transparent about the costs of producing great journalism and create tiers of contributions from its loyal readers. Why limit yourself to $35 a month from audience members who are likely older and more affluent that the typical American news consumer?

    Of course, the Times is a for-profit company, and NPR might be cranking up its pledge drives soon enough, crowding out the competition for pledges from news consumers.

    But the Times, like all other news publishers, must continue to cultivate its relationship with its readers. If there are readers out there with the means and inclination to help fund journalism that’s within the publication’s editorial mission and standards, that publication should find ways to enable those readers to help.

    The Times needs to cultivate its relationship with its advertisers, too. A paywall scheme that reduces traffic from the readers advertisers want to reach ends up hurting a publication in lost ad revenue far more than it helps in subscription fees.

    Don’t forget the advertising angle in this NYT plan, though. When I clicked through from the Times’ homepage today, I got this. (Thank you to Rafat Ali for getting the screengrab.) So is this whole plan simply a ploy – a threat designed to drive readers to click on ads for Lincoln?

    Or does it provide yet another example of newspaper publishers refusing to learn a lesson the public’s taught them, over and over and over again?

  2. I completely agree. All content is out there already, so there is no reason to pay for it when it’s free.

  3. says:

    it makes me frustrated if I want to do some research about NYT’s reports and the like, since I’m just a poor student~