NYTimes discovers the Paywall doesn’t pay

In the phone business they call it a “minutes mentality”. For the newspaper business Jeff Jarvis cals it a “circulation mentality”. But the sad fact is that it’s a margin mentality that says you should charge for everything that’s chargable.

Years ago Craig Burton told me the smartest thing you can do in business is know what money to leave on the table. Don’t charge for everything. Know how to get your leverage by giving the right stuff away. Make money because of that stuff, rather than with it.

The New York Times is learning. Slowly. The hard way.

Sadly, they knew better. In Sprint of 2005, Jeff Jarvis and I stood with the Times’ Martin Niesenholtz at the back of the room at the first Syndicate conference in New York, while Martin was getting ready to give his keynote. He told us he had some news: that the Times was going to start charging $49.95 for access to all its archives, its columnists and other exclusive subscriber-only “content”. In other words, it was going to put up a paywall.

I said “Oh no!” and did my best to inveigh against it. He told us it was a firm decision. He also said it was driven by Circulation, not Editorial. Clearly his heart wasn’t in it. That conversation was confidential at the time, but now that Times Select is dead, I don’t think I’m betraying anything by talking about it. And it’s important for the Times, and other newspapers, to learn something here.

Martin talked about the decision in his keynote. So did I, the next day, in my own keynote to the same audience. You can go through the slides here. Or skip directly to what I said at the time about the Times.

In my How to Save Newspapers post this past March, my first (of ten) recommendations was this:

  1) Stop giving away the news and charging for the olds. Okay, give away the news, if you have to, on your website. There’s advertising money there. But please, open up the archives. Stop putting tomorrow’s fishwrap behind paywalls. (Dean Landsman was the first to call this a “fishwrap fee”.) Writers hate it. Readers hate it. Worst of all, Google and Yahoo and Technorati and Icerocket and all your other search engines ignore it. Today we see the networked world through search engines. Hiding your archives behind a paywall makes your part of the world completely invisilble. If you open the archives, and make them crawlable by search engine spiders, your authority in your commmunity will increase immeasurably. (This point is proven by Santa Barbara vs. Fort Myers, both with papers called News-Press, one with contents behind a paywall and the other wide open.) Plus, you’ll open all that inventory to advertising possibilities. And I’ll betcha you’ll make more money with advertising than you ever made selling stale editorial to readers who hate paying for it. (And please, let’s not talk about Times Select. Your paper’s not the NY Times, and the jury is waaay out on that thing.)

Well, the jury’s in now.

The big upside is that this raises the chances that other papers will stop copying the Times’ bad decisions with Times Select, and go ahead and open their own archives as well.

Maybe, if they’re lucky, they’ll listen to more of what the rest of us have been telling them all along.

Rex Hammock: I am sending out a request to Doc Searls to blog on this topic. And I wish he’d gloat and say, “Why didn’t you people listen to me three years ago?” But, then, Doc is not one to gloat. He’s right.

I’d rather be constructive. So here’s my big idea for the Times: Hire Dave Winer to come in and take the paper to the next level. Dave had Martin’s ear, and those of some other folks at the Times, way more than three years ago. And to some degree they listened. The Times did some good stuff with Dave’s advice (such as taking the lead with RSS). But the Times has otherwise ignored outstanding ideas such as the ones Dave demonstrates with nytimesriver, an application I often use on my cell phone. Nothing to lose, Times. Lots to gain. Trust me.

By the way, I just wrote this with an outliner Dave just helped me get rolling again. It’s great to be back riding in that saddle.

6 responses to “NYTimes discovers the Paywall doesn’t pay”

  1. a milestone in post-testing

  2. … and then in post-changing. I had to post something to check the outliner. Then I re-wrote it as this one.

    There’s sport in there somewhere…

  3. […] Today, the Times took down the pay wall around from around its best content. The bet is that Rupert Murdoch will take down the wall around the Wall Street Journal. Jeff Jarvis comments best on the decision here. Doc Searls adds good sense here. […]

  4. […] Times "discovered" what many had warned them about before attempting Times […]

  5. […] link: From Doc Searls, on another topic, but related: “Here’s my big idea for the Times: Hire Dave Winer to come […]

  6. […] For everyone over at the Pioneer Press, could you something, anything by Jeff Jarvis or Doc Searls. Oh, and maybe you’ve heard that NYTimes has dropped their paywall. […]

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