- NYT's Keller: We're Looking For Ways To Charge For Online Content Again

David Kaplan
Wednesday, February 4, 2009; 4:07 AM

In a Q&A with readers concerned about the precarious financial state of the newspaper this week, NYT Editor Bill Keller was asked if the paper would consider charging for online content again. Keller says that the company isn't making any new plans. But, as he said in the exchange, "a lively, deadly serious discussion continues within The Times about ways to get consumers to pay for what we make." Keller also defended TimesSelect, the online offering that put the paper's columnists and archives behind a pay wall. The service was abandoned after two years in September 2007 and it looks like the concept associated with TimesSelect will not be returning. Instead, the discussions revolve around four of the most popular themes: subscription model, micropayments, revenue sharing via devices like Amazon's Kindle and the non-profit route.

?Information wants to get paid: Keller rejected the concept that says "information wants to be free." The exception is "really good information," such as the kind of comprehensive coverage offered by the NYT. "TimesSelect generated something like $10 million a year, which was real money, but in the end the company calculated that we'd be better off taking down the wall and letting the flood of additional visitors to the Web site attract advertising dollars. The lesson of that experiment, however, was not that readers won't pay for content. A lot of people in the news business, myself included, don't buy as a matter of theology that information "wants to be free." Really good information, often extracted from reluctant sources, truth-tested, organized and explained ? that stuff wants to be paid for." More after the jump.

?A subscription model: On second thought, maybe TimesSelect is the right way to go, Keller mused in a kind of Socratic dialogue. Perhaps the problem was that the wrong items were placed behind the pay wall. Maybe the all the paper's online content should come with a price to consumers; maybe a just a slice of it. Maybe and have the right idea. Then again, those papers count on business readers who just charge their company for access. The general reader might not pull out the credit card for access to news that will remain available for free elsewhere. Even worse, doing so would limit web traffic, which would depress ad revenues even further. Still, Keller isn't totally giving up on the idea: "Paid content tends not to show up in Web searches, which makes it less appealing to advertisers. They don't open their books, but if they did I'll bet you'd see that The Journal's Web site generates far less revenue than ours. But if Web advertising takes a long dive ? or if some clever engineer figures out how to decouple a paid Web site from the search function ? a subscription model might be worth a closer look."

?Micro-payments? or the iTunes model: Okay, readers might not pay a few dollars for access, but what about a few pennies. Keller: "In the heyday of Napster and other steal-this-music Web sites, a lot of people believed that consumers would simply not pay money to download music. Enter Apple and iTunes." Still, iTunes has been much more successful helping to sell iPods and related Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) products, but it hasn't exactly put the record industry on sure footing, has it?

?The Kindle save: Okay, forget iPods. The NYT is already seeing a " modest amount of money" selling a downloadable newspaper for Kindle users. And while TimesSelect is gone, there are subscribers to the Times Reader service, which lets users download a product that has a similar look and to the day's paper. But as Keller laments: "So some people are paying for The Times online. Just not enough of them. So far."

?We'll continue after this brief funding pledge: A number of respected news organizations operate as non-profits, including the BBC and NPR (whose CEO, Vivian Schiller, was formerly head of Others have proposed that the NYT operate like a university and start an endowment fund readers can contribute to. Again, the paper is considering all the ideas, but significant downsides make it an unlikely option. Keller: "For one thing, charity, however well intentioned, can come with strings attached. For another, endowments are no insulation against economic hard times. (Just ask universities.)"


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