With Times Reader, the on-screen page offers stories in the same fonts, look, and print-like appearance of the familiar print Times, but allows a variety of search, page-flip, and rearrange options. For instance, you can click on a word or phrase and get a little clickable chart of all the stories in the paper that touch on that topic. It’s easier to read than a standard Web page, and even more ingeniously searchable. Times strategists imagine a reader at the breakfast table or on a plane curling up with Times Reader as with the print newspaper, and not promiscuously surfing around the Web. Can’t competitors just imitate it? “We certainly hope so,” says Michael Zimbalist, the one-time Disney “imagineer” hired in late 2005 to head R&D at the Times: “The more this kind of platform is widely used, the better we’ll do.” If it becomes a common way of reading a newspaper, he explains, the Times has a head start.
For its digital revenue, the Times has bet heavily on a mainly ad-driven business model. Both print and Web content are mostly free, though users have to register, which helps the Times maximize advertising revenue by pinpointing demographic characteristics of its readers. Only about 2 percent to 3 percent of the material in the paper or the online edition—most notably the columnists—is “behind the wall” and requires an annual premium subscription of $49.95, unless you already subscribe to the print edition. The strategy, according to Times Company executives, is that a content-rich Web environment will entice more readers to bond with the Times online and spend a lot of time with it, thus making the paper a very attractive advertising buy. The Times Company last year earned about $273 million in digital income, out of total revenues of around $3.3 billion. Of that, about two-thirds came from the Times itself. Only about $10 million of that Web revenue is from premium content, the rest is ad income.
In 2006, the Times had a down year, taking a one-time $814.4 million charge for the reduced asset value of its New England media group, principally The Boston Globe . Even without that charge, the Times Company’s operating profit was about 8.9 percent, or less than half the industry average. Responding to a reporter’s question at the Davos meeting about the survival of local newspapers, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. recently observed that the Times is not a local paper but a national one based in New York. E-mails of the comment rocketed around the Globe newsroom, a local Times property where people are still smarting from buyouts, layoffs, and foreign bureau closures.