The New York Times to retreat behind a paywall

Expected at some point during the next couple of weeks is the announcement by Arthur Sulzberger Jr, Chairman of New York Times, that the illustrious Gray Lady well be retreating to her petticoats of a paywall. As a side note there have been a few who have noted that this is around the same time that Apple is suppose to be unleashing its tablet computer.

While the announcement might come as soon as a couple of weeks chances are that it will take a couple of months for the change over to actually take place. During that time you can be sure that the freetards and other interested parties will be be raising their unified voices in opposition to the idea. Of course there will be dire warnings of failure and thousands of words will be written prognosticating how long it will be before NYT comes to its senses and tears down the wall.

It’s not like NYT hasn’t been down this road before as noted by Gabriel Sherman at NY Magazine’s Daily Intel blog

What makes the decision so agonizing for Sulzberger is that it involves not just business considerations, but ultimately a self-assessment of just what Times journalism is worth to the world. This fall, Keller told the Observer that at some point, the decision is a “gut call about what we think the audience will accept.” Hanging over the deliberations is the fact that the Times‘ last experience with pay walls, TimesSelect, was deeply unsatisfying and exposed a rift between Sulzberger and his roster of A-list columnists, particularly Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd, who grew frustrated at their dramatic fall-off in online readership. Not long before the Times ultimately pulled the plug on TimesSelect, Friedman wrote Sulzberger a long memo explaining that, while he was initially supportive of TimesSelect, he’d been alarmed that he had lost most of his readers in India and China and the Middle East.

“As we got into it, it was clear to me I was getting cut off from a lot of my readers in India and China where 50 dollars per year would be equal to a quarter of college tuition,” Friedman recently told me by phone. “What was coming to me anecdotally from my travels was the five worst words that as a columnist you ever want to hear: ‘I used to read you before you went behind the wall.'”

With this move the New York Times will be joining other online newspaper operations like The Financial Times as well as the rumored widening move by News Corp to switch its news properties on the web to a paywall access.

In many cases though this move is and will prove disastrous for an increasing number of organizations that retreat to behind a paywall because they are under the illusion that news is finite product. The problem is that the web has proven this to be a totally wrong assumption.

News isn’t finite. It is a constantly evolving and flowing stream of information that anyone can tap into and report and express opinions on. Wherever you turn on the web someone, somewhere is either reporting late breaking news or trying to provide thoughtful commentary.

What there is though is a finite resource of recognizable and brandable names, either individuals or organizations, that bring global eyeballs to the table. It is these people that are really the strength of any news organization as it is their journalistic reputations and editorial opinions that are sought by the person on the street.

It is the ability to create a niche market within a global market of news that is flooded with everyone wanting to have their say that is the real testing ground of whether the paywall method will work. It has worked for The Financial Times precisely because they have voices that people are willing to pay to listen to. However The Financial Times is a rarity of success as a paywall example as they have a recognizable brand that people have always been willing to pay a premium for so extending that to the web really wasn’t that much of a stretch.

Will the same thing work in favor of The New York Times?

Personally I think it does have a shot at working. The New York Times is an iconic brand that is known around the world. While its reputation has taken a bit of a battering over the last few years it still is considered to be one of those few “world class newspapers”. It might not have the same type of niche appeal as the Financial Times but even within the broader landscape of global news brands it is one that people are willing to pay for.

It’s going to be a risky move no doubt but if done right it could work for them. That said though it isn’t something that is going to work for other news organizations. The reason being that regardless of how important they might think they are in the eyes of the Web they are just another news outlet among hundreds of other outlets.

The Web is global in nature and increasingly the news is being separated into two types – global and hyper-local, anything in between is just news that anyone is capable of reporting or opining on. The thinking that by moving these run-of-the-mill news outlets behind a paywall is going to save them is flawed at its core.

The only thing it will result in is – in the words of Tom Friedman: “I used to read you before you went behind the wall.”