The NYT Tosses Off a Paywall Story

The New York Times has a brief report today raising hopes about the prospects of a pay model for newspapers.

Unfortunately, the story is so thin it probably wasn’t worth publishing.

The paper relies on data by Journalism Online, Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz’s company, whose business is convincing papers to use their services to install paywalls, about the supposed success of paywalls at some of its early customers.

But the Times leaves out the biggest datapoint of all, which in what is almost surely a pitch-generated story could be telling: How many digital customers did the paywalled papers get after using Journalism Online and how much net revenue did they gain or lose? Tangentially, how were their print circulations affected?

Here’s what we do get:

But the initial findings showed that newspapers found success with a pay model by setting a conservative limit for the number of articles visitors could read free each month, and by making clear that most readers would not be affected.

Journalism Online said monthly unique visits to the Web sites included in its study fell zero to 7 percent, while page views fell zero to 20 percent. No publishers reported a decline in advertising revenue.

This is certainly good to know—to the extent that you can trust data from a startup about its own services. The Times should have questioned some of the actual papers for confirmation here, instead it reads as if it’s just rewritten a press release.

That’s too bad because this is a critically important question, not least for the Times itself, which is due to implement its own pay meter shortly. This is basically a one-source story with a throwaway quote from a newspaper analyst tacked on the end.

I’m firmly in favor of charging of newspaper charging for online access, and I favor Journalism Online’s (the FT’s and WSJ’s, really) leaky paywall model over the in-or-out Times of London one. I’ve argued that paywalls, implemented correctly, could keep most of a site’s good traffic, while capitalizing better on its core customers.

But I sure wouldn’t use anything from this NYT piece to help me argue that case.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , ,