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Would You Pay to Read the NYT Online?

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A couple of reports dribbling out indicate that the New York Times is serious about gearing up to charge people, in some way, for online access. Poynter got its hands on an NYT survey asking subscribers how willing they’d be to pay to read the paper online. Meanwhile, Britain’s Telegraph quotes an NYT exec saying that the paper will decide how—not whether—to charge online next month. 

So I ask you: would you pay to read the NYT online?

Note that I didn’t ask “should you pay?” There’s a reason for that. 

As media companies struggle and talk (maybe wishful) about online payments becomes more common, there’s a tendency on both sides of the debate to cast it in moral terms. How dare a newspaper consider charging readers online when information wants to be free? How dare readers freeload off journalists when they serve such an important function? I know you can afford to do journalism cheaper! I know you can afford to pay a few bucks a week!

These arguments are—well, they’re not wrong or unworthy, but they’re often a distraction. As I’ve been saying, somebody pays for journalism. Regardless. Period. I don’t care if it’s a Vanity Fair writer with a fat expense account or a blogger working in her spare time. Something—ads, readers, donors, a day job, a nonprofit, a trust fund, Starbucks—provides that person with the wherewithal to pay the bills and thus the time to work. (See this earlier post for some ideas as to what might pay the bills if journalism’s current business model just stops working.) 

The questions are, simply: what/who will pay, will it work, and what will it pay for? (And, of course, is it worth paying for: if you don’t want to pay for the NYT, say, and are honestly happy if it vanishes, that’s perfectly legitimate.) Beyond that, the shoulds are just a philosophical exercise. New systems for funding the time to do journalism are not going to appear just because you, I or Bill Keller thinks they should. Few people will pay for news because they should. And news media are not going to find a way to bring you content for free just because they should.

So, will the NYT’s plan work? I don’t know, for a couple reasons. First, were I an expert on the separation of the larger world from its money, I probably would have made different career choices.

But also because it’s not clear what the plan will be. The Telegraph article suggests two possibilities: a “metered model,” in which readers are charged once they pass a certain number of views, and a “membership model,” in which people pay fees for levels of access. (Both, it sounds like, will differ from the NYT’s bygone Times Select experiment, which involved a premium charge only for certain columnists.) 

To me, the membership model sounds better, as it doesn’t create the feeling of a ticking meter, and is similar to subscribing to a newspaper, magazine or cable channel. But there are obvious challenges to either: how many people will pay at all if they can get free news—even if they don’t like it as much—elsewhere? How does this stop anyone from summarizing the information in NYT stories on aggregator sites? Would a loss of readership (and influence, and reach on the Web) outweigh any short-term income gain? 

I don’t know. So I ask again: Would you pay for the nytimes.com? And if you can, let’s save the shoulds for a different thread.

(By the way, if you want to hear NYT editor Bill Keller’s thoughts about the future of print, see TIME’s 10 Questions interview with him. As you’ll see, it doesn’t take long for him to get to it. Oh, yeah, and: So would I pay for the NYT online? I still have a job in the media and get to expense my subscriptions; I don’t count. Once we all start losing our jobs, there goes another guaranteed revenue stream!)

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