Should newspapers have a pay wall?

A recent post by Tim Porter about the New York Times’ for-pay service (known as Times Select) really struck a nerve, and while I commented on Tim’s post — and got a response back from him — I thought the issue deserved a post here as well, since it is a topic close to my heart as a newspaper journalist. Tim’s post was a response to this post by Mark Glaser of the PBS blog MediaShift, in which Mark wrote an open letter (based on Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1987 about the Berlin Wall) to Arthur Sulzberger of the NYT urging him to “Tear down this (Times Select) wall!”

As Mark pointed out in his post, walling up all the Times columnists such as Maureen Dowd separates them from the blogosphere, which in turn isolates the newspaper from the conversation that blogs and columnists should rightly be part of — and were part of, until the wall went up. Tim, however, argues in his post that this view is “wrong-headed” and says that the Times is doing exactly the right thing. As he puts it:

“The print business model cannot sustain journalism as we know it, so we must find new ways to pay for it. Charging for full access to the newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal does, is one option. Selling subscriptions to pure online journalism products like Salon or is another. Putting a price on the head of your most popular columnists, like the Time does, is yet another.”

Tim also points out that Times Select makes money, although the $9-million figure he uses is likely overstated (as he acknowledged in his response to my comment, and to Mark’s). He also notes that you can find columns by Maureen and other NYT columnists if you look around on the Internet — although I would argue that this is a little like telling people to download songs from pirate music sites instead of using iTunes. The newspaper that I work for pursues blogs and other sites that run the full version of columns and news stories for copyright violations.

As I said in my comment to Tim, there’s no question that a pay wall like Times Select can make money for a high-quality newspaper like the Times. The important question is, is it the right way to make money over the longer term? Or does it sacrifice the long-term value of having those columnists be part of the online conversation — getting links and commentary and traffic and all those other things the Web is so good at — in return for a short-term revenue boost?

I would argue the latter. And I’m not sure the sacrifice is going to be worth it. I think — and Mark seems to agree — that newspapers could probably make a whole lot more money by encouraging links and traffic and all those other community-based things, and monetizing those through advertising and other means. Could we be wrong? Sure we could. And maybe the Berlin Wall was a good thing too. But in the end, it came down, and we were all a lot better off.


Came across a post by Jeff Jarvis about a presentation made by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, who had some comments about pay walls:

“On the Guardian we ignored all those who told us that we should be charging people to access our content online because we believed there was a greater prize to be won – both in influence and reach – if we built the best digital version of the paper we possibly could.”

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