Keller: NYT “within Weeks of a Decision” about Paywalls

In his Public Editor column today, Clark Hoyt reports on the surprising-but-also-unsurprising—and either way media-moment-symbolizing—staff reductions that The New York Times is about to endure:

Though The Times retains the largest newsroom of any American paper—1,250 reporters, photographers, editors, columnists, graphic artists, Web producers, videographers and more—it is about to cut 100 people through voluntary buyouts and, if needed, layoffs that would happen in the weeks before Christmas. Editors say they are determined to minimize the impact on readers, but some of those readers are worried. “Please, please, please resist those cuts,” wrote Deborah Holdstein of Oak Park, Ill.

One way to resist those cuts (or future one) is—maybe—to experiment, again, with paid content. As Hoyt notes, “When the latest cuts were announced, hundreds of readers thought they had a better answer: charge online readers. ‘I have my credit card ready,’ wrote Anne Hills of Windham, Maine. Cullen Howe of Manhattan said, ‘Why not go this route rather than enact cuts that will certainly affect the quality of the reporting?’”

On that issue, though, Hoyt reports, Times business execs—and its top editor—are still on the fence.

Scott Heekin-Canedy, the newspaper’s president and general manager, told me in June that a decision about charging online readers would be made by late summer. But he said last week that executives were still studying the issue. Lauren Rich Fine, a professor at Kent State University and a former analyst of media companies for Merrill Lynch, said The Times should move ahead with charging for at least some online content. Delaying, she said, is “not smart.”

Keller said: “It’s a much tougher, more complicated decision than it seems to all the armchair experts. There is no clear consensus on the right way to go.” At stake are millions of dollars from online advertisers who want the largest possible number of readers. Putting up any kind of pay wall has the potential to drive away readers and some of those dollars.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, said the newsroom cuts and a decision about charging online readers are entirely separate issues. The cuts are “meant to address the immediate, short-term realities of our current economic situation.” Charging for online content, he said, is a strategic issue that “would have little or no impact on our financial results in the short term, but rather position us differently for long-term growth.”

Stay tuned. Keller said his guess is, “We’re within weeks of a decision.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.