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Will Financial Times' Metering Success Work for NY Times?

As a Niche Business News Outlet, FT.com Has Tightened Restrictions, Grown Base of Paying Subscribers

By Published on .

A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Although the The Financial Times has been using a meter to charge its most frequent web readers since 2007, The New York Times is still taking an uncertain path by deciding on a meter for its own site.

New York Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said, 'Our audiences are very loyal, and we believe that our readers will pay for our award-winning digital content and services.'
New York Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said, 'Our audiences are very loyal, and we believe that our readers will pay for our award-winning digital content and services.' Credit: Scott Gries
The experience of The Financial Times is encouraging in more ways than one. A meter is easier to adjust than a pay wall like the one The Wall Street Journal uses to shield most of its online content from free reading. If the meter is driving away too many otherwise loyal readers, The New York Times could make it less restrictive and allow people to read more articles for free before being asked to pay.

And when The Financial Times has adjusted its meter, it's made the settings more restrictive, not less. "Our subscription barrier is not set at 10 articles a month," said Rob Grimshaw, managing director of FT.com. "It was originally at 30."

The Financial Times likewise now forces free readers to at least register after viewing just one article each month; the registration barrier started out at 10 articles. Today it has 1.8 million registered visitors to its site, up 80% over last January, and 121,200 paying subscribers in the most recent count, up 22% from a year earlier.

But there's nothing to say that The New York Times, which committed to a metered model with its announcement this morning, will have the same success. "It works for the FT," said Ken Doctor, a media analyst at Outsell. "The FT is a different kind of publication though because it is about business and finance rather than general news including business and finance."

Different content, audiences
Those differences already affect the ebb and flow of visitors to each site. NYTimes.com attracted a massive audience of 19.6 million unique visitors in November, but that was 6% fewer than in November 2008, according to ComScore, partly because November 2008 had a presidential election drawing visitors. The Financial Times attracted nearly 5 million visitors in November, a much smaller number than The New York Times but still enough for a 34% gain over a year earlier.

General interest news faces more competition online and frequently doesn't require the same expertise to approximate as, say, a report on the derivatives market. And it's far from clear how many New York Times readers would pay for its online coverage of the 2008 presidential election instead of turning to the seemingly infinite free supply provided by others.

"I think we do have some advantages as a more niche player," said Mr. Grimshaw. "It probably is easier to defend a niche position on the web than to defend a general position on the web."

But Mr. Grimshaw agreed that high-quality content remains a competitive advantage, the argument made by The New York Times today. "Our new business model is designed to provide additional support for The New York Times's extraordinary, professional journalism," New York Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in the meter announcement. "Our audiences are very loyal, and we believe that our readers will pay for our award-winning digital content and services."

Commenters on the New York Times site today expressed mixed feelings on the subject. "I'll be happy to pay a reasonable fee for access to this fine publication," one commenter wrote. Some others echoed that sentiment.

But not everyone was sold. "Is NYT misaligned with the world's reality?" one asked. "I'll just stop coming to NYT.com then. There are so many other options on the internet for free."

The New York Times meter, which won't be introduced until early 2011, will be more permissive than The Financial Times meter in at least one way: It will not ask the paper's existing home-delivery subscribers to pay extra to read the website.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that The New York Times was the first United States newspaper to commit to a pay meter online.

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