NYTimes' Robinson: Pay wall will be in place by early 2011

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The New York Times' much anticipated “metered-model” pay wall for online content will go live early in 2011, according to New York Times Co. President-CEO Janet L. Robinson. The approach, featuring a combination of free content for casual viewers and fee-based subscriptions for regular online readers, will increase revenue without substantially reducing page views, she said. Robinson, speaking along with Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. at last month's Bloomberg BusinessWeek 2010 Media Summit in New York, stressed the need to go slow in developing the plan's structure and implementation. “There is an opportunity, I think, for us to gain a great deal of revenue from this paid model going forward,” Robinson said. “And we're going to take our time in making sure that the user experience is very frictionless, that the communication to our user base is appropriate [and] marketing associated with it is very effective.” Robinson said the model was chosen after close review of other online fee-based approaches. The free element of the model, she said, represents “an opportunity for us to maintain a very large portion of our audience [and] consequently a very large portion of our ad inventory.” The fee-based portion “can help the company grow profitably going forward,” she said. Robinson added that online content will be free to Times home- and business-delivery subscribers. Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst with Outsell Inc., pointed out the similarities between the Times' metered model and the system currently employed by the Financial Times, which offers individuals 10 free articles per month upon registration and unlimited access for a fee. “That's a metered model that definitely works,” Doctor said. “The latest figure I've seen for Financial Times has been 126,000 paid digital subscriptions.” Doctor said boosting revenue from online subscribers is essential to the Times' long-term strategy and that attracting casual readers with a limited amount of free page views fits into that goal. “The Times doesn't want the casual reader to run into a pay wall,” he said. “It's a lead generator to attract subscribers. They don't want to get in the way of that free business.” Sulzberger was questioned by moderator Jim Ellis, assistant managing editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, about the prospects of charging for online content, given that the Times in 2007 abandoned its first attempt, TimesSelect, which charged for op-ed and other select features. “It was a success. It made money,” Sulzberger said of TimesSelect. “But it happened at the same time that digital advertising was just skyrocketing, and it became clear to us that if we wanted to tap into digital advertising in a bolder way, we needed to take that wall down.” Sulzberger stressed the need for the venerable newspaper brand to be “platform-agnostic.” “It's not how people get your news and information that defines your brand, it's the quality of the news and information, and increasingly the quality of how we integrate our audience and our journalists into the social web that we're all moving toward,” said Sulzberger, who is also chairman of the New York Times Co. “At the end of the day, we can't define ourselves by our method of distribution. If we did that, we would still be using pigeons.” Sulzberger admitted to being surprised by how quickly the Internet affected his company. “The speed of the challenge moved faster than we expected,” he said. “And now, the second and tertiary phases of this is social media. How do we place ourselves within the context of conversations taking place around us, and not through us? That's a new mindset, and that's been a really interesting challenge to grapple with.” M
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