New York Times Publisher: Halt the Presses?

Emma Heald writes on editorsweblog.org that Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., chairman and publisher of the New York Times, says the paper will stop making a print version—some day.

She quotes him as saying “we will stop printing the New York Times some time in the future, date TBD.”

This is another story in the ongoing shift from print to digital media. Recently, the Detroit Free Press stopped home delivery of its print edition four days a week, opting instead for newsstand delivery and a special online edition of the paper that is identical to the print version. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped printing newspapers altogether in 2009, and is now available exclusively online. I’ve documented on Trade Secrets the rise of ebooks, ebook readers and tablet PCs, all of which are helping to facilitate the transformation from trees and ink to silicon and e-ink screens.

Sulzberger’s comments, given at the Ninth International Newsroom Summit in London on Sept. 8, were really just flip remarks at the end of a talk on how the NYT plans to implement a pay system for most of its web content in 2011.

Many newspapers are considering pay systems for some or all of their content. The Wall Street Journal reports success with its system, which limits access to some articles to just the introductory paragraphs for non-subscribers. The NYT’s proposed system would allow free access to light users of the Times, such as those who come across NYT content with a search engine and just want to read an article or two, but would charge those who want access to more content.

I don’t think the Times’ idea is a good one. The WSJ may succeed because it offers unique content for a specific audience that can’t be found elsewhere. Most of the content in the NYT can, however—or at least content like it.

One of the strengths of the Internet is a user’s ability to surf seamlessly from site to site, accessing the information they desire. When those sites begin to set up their own proprietary pay systems, the information superhighway becomes a series of roadblocks and speedbumps. Suddenly, users will have to remember dozens of usernames and passwords to navigate through their daily media consumption. They’ll simply avoid paid content and stick to news aggregators like Google and Yahoo!, or news sites that have smaller budgets and can get by on their click-through ad revenue. However, smaller budgets usually mean less reliable news and poorer journalism.

A better solution would be to implement a global micropay system, in which member news sites charge all users a very small amount to access an article on their site (pennies per view). Users would simply register with this global news “Paypal” and accumulate invisible, behind-the-scenes charges that would be billed monthly to a credit card. Not only would users have to remember just one username and password, the system would bill light users less and heavier users more—no one-size-fits-all, $12.95/month subscription for someone who just wants to follow the Yankees or do the crossword puzzle.

Think about it—what if your cell phone company wanted to set up separate billing plans for each state you call, or even each friend? Or if cable TV billed you separately for each channel? Likewise, we shouldn’t be bombarded with dozens of bills from the news sites that we frequent.

When it comes to paid news content, KISS—keep it simple, stupid—should be the defining framework.

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