That depends on what you mean by free. If you mean free to read all you want without paying anything, sure. But for 95 percent or more of visitors to nytimes.com, the site is free. The NYT let casual readers read twenty stories a month for free last year before asking them to pay (it has since lowered that to ten a month). That means its stories continue to get blogged and tweeted and emailed and it sells ads to the casual readers who wouldn’t pay $16 a month for a subscription. Even if you’ve already hit the limit for the month, you can still read NYT stories linked by blogs and the like.
Because of this strategy, the Times has preserved and added all that circulation revenue done while growing digital advertising revenue at a double-digit clip (in the News Media Group, which is dominated by the NYT and the much smaller but also paywalled Boston Globe).
How did Pexton’s paywall-free Washington Post do in digital ad revenue in 2011? The Post Company doesn’t break the Post’s results out from Slate’s, but the two declined 8 percent last year, a $9 million loss.
But hey, somewhere down the line the Post might figure out how to make beaucoup money online:
And ponder this: What if The Post, through its innovative uses of technology and social media — witness its Facebook app Social Reader; more than 15 million people downloaded it in just over five months — cracks the code for how to make money with digital content. Then The Post would be formidable. Post executives just met in California with the powerhouses of Silicon Valley. This is not coincidence.
I’ve been hearing this logic from the free crowd for more than a decade and it still hasn’t happened. It’s not going to either, regardless of how many powwows Post brass has with the folks who are smarter than they are and who make their money on other people’s content.
So a paywall is not a solution; it would help over time, but it would not bring a revolution in profitability.
Nobody suggests that leaky paywalls are going to bring about a revolution in profitability. The point is to stop or slow the bleeding and to help make the transition to an all-digital future five or ten years down the line—one that includes more than one flimsy revenue stream based on volatile and not-very-lucrative digital ads.
With every passing year, there’s less and less of the Post to save.