Decision On Times Pay Model Will Come From the Gut

bill keller getty Decision On Times Pay Model Will Come From the GutOn Wednesday, Sept. 30, Arthur Sulzberger will host his annual “State of The Times” meeting for Times employees, which is generally a sleepy and awkward affair with lots of corporate cheerleading. (Last year, Mr. Sulzberger started the proceedings by playing a slideshow touting all of the paper’s accomplishments with Coldplay’s “Clocks” playing in the background. When the song ended, in lieu of applause, there was a deadly silence.)

But for this year’s meeting, there’s one giant and vital question Times reporters and editors have rolling around in their minds: What’s going on with the pay model for nytimes.com?

Don’t expect an answer quite yet. Mr. Sulzberger is expected to—once again—punt the issue and tell Times employees that a decision has not yet been made. 

Over the past several months, we’ve heard about two proposals, and that a decision was imminent. And yet, despite all the meetings The Times has had, all the speculation, all the hand-wringing, and all the studying of other models, ultimately the decision will come down to an informed wing-and-a-prayer, said the paper’s executive editor.

“In the end, I think it will come down to a gut call about what we think the audience will accept and how we think the market will evolve,” said Bill Keller to The Observer in an email. “Everybody wants it to be a well-informed, well-considered gut call, but it’s a gut call.”

That gut call would be found in the insides of Mr. Sulzberger and Janet Robinson. Ultimately, however much input the newsroom or Mr. Keller is going to provide, it will be a business-side decision.

Yet, without question, the newsroom has been involved in the process—there were meetings in the spring hosted by top editors, and a call for proposals from reporters on how the Times Company could make money off the Web.    

But sources tell us the decision has been hard because the newsroom, much like the Times Company Board, hasn’t pulled together a clear proposal.

“There is as much disagreement in the newsroom as anywhere else,” said one senior newsroom source. “In this case, no matter where they look, there is no consensus. People would like to do something, but no one can agree on what it is.”

“There isn’t much of a split over charging, but there’s a real split over how to charge,” said one editor. “Will it be per article? Or how to access the Web site generally? I don’t think anyone believes they’re not going to charge for something, but there is a split over the structure.”

“First of all, there’s no clear evidence that a pay model will save newspapers from the flight of advertisers,” said Mr. Keller. “It might, but that’s a matter of faith; nothing in previous experience (including the experience of the Journal and FT) and nothing in the reams of spread sheets proves that it will.”

Back in the spring, things certainly seemed simpler! Mr. Keller came to his staff at his semi-annual “Throw Stuff at Bill” session and told employees that there were two systems being considered: A metered system (where after a reader clicks on enough stories at nytimes.com, he’ll start getting charged) and a membership system (where readers could send in a check to support the company and get a tote bag or special access to a Times panel, à la NPR or PBS).

We reported that Mr. Keller told his staff at that spring meeting that he hoped a decision would be made by the end of June. Scott Heekin-Canedy, the president and general manager of the New York Times Media Group, told The Telegraph in July that a decision would be made in August. Then the summer and Labor Day went trickling by, and all was quiet on the pay-model front.

“It’s taking time because it’s really hard,” said Mr. Keller on Tuesday. “Every calculation about Web business models rests on assumptions—and a little tweak of the assumptions can turn a promising approach into a loser.”

One kink, said a source, was that rotten old economy.

“It’s been pushed back because the economy has been so uncertain,” said another source.

Mr. Keller once again reminded us of a very salient fact: As much as we discuss digital, the big bucks are still made in the printed product and “the end is not quite as universally nigh as the doomsayers would have you believe.”

But a decision needs to be made awfully soon, right?

“How much time? I don’t know, but I think everyone from Arthur and Janet on down would like to see us make a decision before the end of the year—if only so we can stop going to pay-model meetings.”

jkoblin@observer.com

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