New York Times Paywall: Publication Expands Options to Gain Subscribers


Despite initial skepticism at the introduction of the New York Times’ paywall in 2011, the approach has garnered generally positive results. In the New York Times Company’s 2012 Annual Report, Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. purported, “The launch of our paid digital subscription model in 2011 has created a meaningful consumer revenue stream. In fact, 2012 marked the first time in our history that circulation revenues surpassed advertising revenues. This was in large part due to the significant growth in our digital subscription base, which at year-end totaled approximately 668,000 paying subscribers to the Company’s digital products.”

Unluckily, feeble growth rates in first-quarter earnings were announced in a press release Thursday, resulting in the innovation of a "new strategy for growth" that includes new strategic proposals seeking to increase the company's revenues by channeling the brand equity and perceptions to generate consumers — one of these initiatives being the introduction of new digital subscription options, both cheaper and more expensive. These include a lower-priced package permitting access to the New York Times’ “most important and interesting stories,” as well as options offering “deep access” to specialized categories such as “politics, technology, opinion, the arts and food.” Additionally, the introduction of an “enhanced tier” was announced, offering at a greater price, the opportunity to attend Times’ events as well as access other exclusive offers for subscribers to “all digital access” as well as print subscribers.

The Times’ paywall model was a porous" one, meaning that there were ways around the paywall for users to freely access price-tagged content and this was tolerated, based on the notion that loyal followers of the newspaper would be unaffected by price changes, paying whatever reasonable price necessary for their idea of high-quality journalism. If this notion is genuine, the new subscription options will instill in more readers of the Times the willingness to pay, especially considering that they can now buy subscriptions based solely on their topics of interest.  

However, it is probable that had the paywall been stronger and not “porous”, the subscription-only articles would have found their way onto external websites, and, since The New York Times sparked the paywall reasonability discussion in 2011, the future (and even possibility) for paywalls in online journalism has been up in the air. Since then, the paywall method of online news access has become more and more common with highbrow news companies. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism released a report in March 2013 revealing that 450 out of 1380 American daily newspapers are in the process of creating digital paywalls in order to decrease dependency on advertising revenues.

Still, in spite of the jump to subscription-only access, the idea that digital content should come free of charge runs strongly in the internet community, especially with young users. There is a vast bank of efficient online news that is produced with less resources and at a lower cost than that of the traditional news corporations, by reprocessing unrestricted online news feeds.

A fierce defense of the high quality, traditional content produced by long-established news organizations and a seemingly widespread confidence in the idea that subscribers who see value in the news they are receiving will continue to pay for it is trumped by the reality that young users who did not grow up with particular loyalty to these organizations will probably look elsewhere for their information if they find that access is easier. The spread of paywalls across longstanding papers’ online editions could easily be a step further in alienation from younger readers, or the readers who grew up uninfluenced by the perceived reliability and comfort generated by what were the biggest company names in the newspaper industry.