There has recently been news floating around concerning a decision made by the New York Times which requires online subscribers to pay for their digital content. Though the paper expects to employ its new pay model soon, there is no certainty as to how this decision will affect the company as well as its users, while it tries to compete against numerous free news websites on the web.
This Tuesday, UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism held a timely talk with the Assistant Managing Editor of the New York Times, Gerald Marzorati, in conversation with UC Berkeley Journalism Professors Mark Danner and Michael Pollan.
Marzorati provided a vague statement as to how the new payment model will work. He stated that current print subscribers will have access to online content for either a small amount of money or no money at all. If the user accesses the Times on occasion, he or she will still have access to the homepage. But if the customer is reading many stories from beginning to end, they will need to pay to continue that experience. This may all be determined by the number of clicks aggregated each day.
Pertaining to this calculation of clicks, Pollan questioned Marzorati as to how the online Times will cater to audiences, now knowing which articles acquire the most clicks or comments. Marzorati specified that popularity does not affect the decisions of what will go on the front page. This will still be in the hands of the editors who serve a curatorial function, arranging topics in ways they think is most important. Of course, the home page will be constantly changing and being upgraded unlike the front page of a paper.
Danner followed up to this statement, asking if unpopular sections will be cut when costs go up. Marzorati replied by pointing out that segments often become obsolete due to the changing nature of society and technology. He stated that the New York Times relies on serendipity, or when a reader stumbles upon an interesting article on accident.
Pollan then questioned the previous pay-wall the Times had utilized on their Opinion section. This hard pay-wall walled off the New York Times’ most prestigious opinion writers on the web. Though many subscribers signed up, the section’s user base shrunk, requiring the paper to retreat back to their original model. Marzorati stressed that the metered pay-wall scheme will be in flux for a while until the paper figures out what to do. A second stream of revenue, other than advertising, is needed for the paper to survive. Though the audience is much bigger, rates are now lower due to the multitude of options each advertiser has. Even so, the Times’ main advertisement page, the home page, will continue to be free.
When asked about readership and the small percentage of users willing to pay, Marzorati said, “We think the Times is different; it’s not the Detroit Free Press or the Chicago Tribune.” The paper charges its subscribers eight hundred dollars per year, yet they still have many subscribers. He acknowledged the widening gap between the affluent and the less prosperous reader, but stated that the Times could do nothing to change that.
The crisis here, as Marzorati stated, is not a readership crisis. It is a crisis of expense. “The challenge for us is how to grow as a business…growth is about finding different ways to invest.”