“Don’t Call it a Paywall”

A panel discussion with NYT’s Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and Janet Robinson

On Tuesday night, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and New York Times Company president and CEO Janet Robinson spoke at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in a panel discussion titled “The Future of Media, Publishing, and Paid Content.”

The title was perhaps a bit too grand, as the discussion, not surprisingly, mainly focused on the Times’s new subscription strategy. (“Don’t call it a ‘paywall!’” moderator Bill Grueskin, Dean of Academic Affairs, kept reminding himself aloud throughout the conversation.)

The first questions were about how the Times staff went about structuring the digital subscription plan, and what kinds of factors went into its pricing. For instance, Bill Grueskin noted, some have wondered whether the relatively high price of online access is meant to encourage more readers to subscribe to home delivery, which would in turn bring the Times more print ad revenue from the increased circulation numbers.

But, no, “we didn’t make this decision to bolster print,” said Robinson. “We made this decision to create a new revenue stream that provides us with the opportunity to continue to invest in the journalism that we create each and every day.” Nor, she added later, did the pricing of the tablet and all-access bundles ($20 and $35 per four weeks, respectively) have anything to do with the cut that Apple takes out of app subscription revenues. Rather, the pricing structure was built over a long period of research about usage habits and how customers valued the different methods of access. Some of that research included looking at how telecom companies price and structure their bundles of access—for home Internet access, cable TV, and phone plans.

“Many people, I think, were wondering, ‘Why is it taking them so long to price the bundles, construct the bundles?’” said Robinson. The answer is that, when they finally rolled out their plan, they wanted to make sure it was “seamless.”

Sulzberger also pointedly emphasized that the widely quoted estimate that the Times spent a year and $40 million on building the subscription plan was false. “We’re not going to get into specifics, but I’m happy to tell you that that is vastly wrong, significantly wrong,” he said. “It was much less…please don’t use that number, it’s not accurate.” He added that they had requested a correction from Bloomberg, where the figure first appeared, and have not yet gotten one.

Grueskin raised the criticism that the Times’s particular pricing structure, as well as the porousness of the site, seemed confusing to some users: they never knew when they were going to bump up against that “wall.” Sulzberger responded, “One of the challenges was to build a system that is adaptable,” and that he thinks they have succeeded in that. The levels of access—for instance, coming in from Twitter or Google or Facebook—can shift and change as the Times learns even more about how people access the site and what works best.

Aside from the pay sctructure, questions posed to the panel also broached a few touchier topics. Grueskin asked Sulzberger about the flap between Bill Keller and Arianna Huffington, and the relative merits of aggregation and legacy media, to which Sulzberger replied that there are things that the Times can learn from The Huffington Post (such as community-building and incorporating social media into the site), and there are things HuffPost can learn from the Times (“among them is the need for high-quality journalism…for people on the ground reporting what they are seeing, not what they’ve been told about.”)

Later, Grueskin asked if the Times felt at all threatened by The Wall Street Journal’s coming out with a local New York edition. “Janet, I know you’ve been quoted as saying that you don’t see it as much a threat on the advertising front, but Arthur, could you talk a little bit about how you see it on the editorial front?” To which Sulzberger replied, “I think the two thoughts go together…. Quality journalism attracts a quality audience, that we sell to quality advertisers.” And so as far as the Journal is concerned, “If they’re not attracting quality advertisers, it’s probably because they’re not requiring the kind of readers they need for that section, which may be tied to something.”

Despite the slightly defensive tone of the evening’s conversation, a high note had to be the last question: Grueskin read an oft-cited piece that appeared in The Onion, a sarcastic bit with the headline “NYTimes.com’s Plan To Charge People Money For Consuming Goods, Services Called Bold Business Move,” and asked Sulzberger how he felt about the fake quote attributed to him at the end of the article. Sulzberger smiled and said “It’s the first time I’ve ever been quoted accurately.”

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner Tags: , , , , ,