Reinventing the Newsroom

Time Waits for No One — Not Even the Times

Posted in Cultural Change, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on January 20, 2010

So yesterday, reviewing two early reactions to the unofficial news about the New York Times adopting a metered pay model, I wrote that such posts “reassure me there’s plenty of experimentation out there, at least for paywalls. Will one of those paths yield an answer that ‘saves’ journalism? I doubt it — but at this early stage, salvation isn’t a realistic goal. It’s enough that we all learn things for the next iteration of experiments, and move quickly to put them in place.”

Today, the Times has officially announced its plans. (Here’s the staff memo.) Bully for the experiment, as said yesterday. But where’s the quickly part? This would have been a great memo if it had been dated January 20, 2009. Since it’s dated today and discussing what will happen in 2011, it looks oddly timid even when it’s being smart.

Image of Treebeard, from LOTR

2011? Seriously?

For example, Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and CEO Janet Robinson write that “our strategy is to build the metered model while we remain focused on making more compelling, interactive and entertaining, providing many more reasons for online audiences to visit our site and stay longer. In the weeks ahead, we will be adding resources to achieve these critically important goals.”

My principal objection to most papers’ plans (however vague) to charge for their content isn’t religious, but practical: Too many papers I read have made such slashing cuts and do so little with the Web that they aren’t worth paying for. But I don’t feel that way about the Times. It’s not perfect — like many other news organizations, it’s weighed down by traditions that have curdled into dead weight. But its core coverage remains robust, and it’s become the leading Web innovator in digital journalism, with ambitious Web offerings that are deep and broad. The New York Times is already worth paying for — it doesn’t need a yearlong Manhattan Project to become so. Sulzberger and Robinson say they believe Times readers are willing to pay for it online. I think they’re right — in January 2010.

Things get more curious further down.

“Our metered model decision is a product of months of vigorous analysis and debate,” Sulzberger and Robinson write. “There was much we wanted to learn and know. We wanted to get a far better sense of’s potential over the next decade. We also wanted to understand where the Web may be heading and how new technologies will affect customer online usage. We believed that only by carefully pursuing these and other important issues could we arrive at the best possible answer.”

Vigorous analysis and debate is good — particularly if it began with that magical starting question of “If we were starting today, would we do this?” Understanding where you’re going is good too — you fire the arrow at where the target’s going, not where it is now. But again: 2011? All those months of vigorous analysis and debate yielded nothing more than a vague decision about deploying a metered model in a year or so? It’s like the scene in The Two Towers where Treebeard tells the impatient hobbits that the Ents have reached a decision … Merry and Pippin aren’t orcs.

One thing folks who write blogs like mine have to guard against is confusing the needs of an industry with the responsibilities of a single company in that industry. Whatever the New York Times does will be closely watched and imitated by those who think they can follow suit, but the New York Times’ mission isn’t to save journalism — it’s to do what’s best for the New York Times. As someone who thinks about the overall industry, I have to be careful not to forget this.

But still … 2011? I can’t help but be disappointed. I’m disappointed for the overall industry, which desperately needs feedback on paywall experiments so that new experiments can be run. But I’m also disappointed for the Times itself. It’s better — and readier — than it seems to think.

4 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Micheal Foley, Jason Fry. Jason Fry said: NYT's sense of urgency rivals Treebeard's — they're better and readier than they seem to think. My first take: […]

  2. Case Ernsting said, on January 21, 2010 at 9:55 am

    With ya on this one Jason. It seems like this is a long-term plan in which everything will become pretty permanent once the wall is in place. I was hoping to see something small at first (like a beta version) and then adjustments made as the program progresses. This memo makes the pay wall sound as steadfast as the Great Wall.

  3. […] the announcement was collected at E&P In Exile and the new site MediaCritic. Steve Outing and Jason Fry don’t like the wait ’til 2011, and Cory Doctorow is skeptical that that’s even […]

  4. […] announcement was collected at E&P In Exile and the new site MediaCritic. Steve Outing and Jason Fry don’t like the wait ’til 2011, and Cory Doctorow is skeptical that that’s even true. Former […]

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