NYT's Arthur Sulzberger and Janet Robinson Insist the Paywall Is Not a Paywall

globe  1249630285 4640 NYT's Arthur Sulzberger and Janet Robinson Insist the Paywall Is Not a PaywallRather, it’s an “online pricing plan,” a “digital subscription plan.” “It’s not like the Times of London wall,” said Sulzberger, noting the porousness and searchability of the new New York Times.

Yet at last night’s discussion at the Columbia Journalism School, entitled ‘The Future of Media, Publishing and Paid Content’, the audience just couldn’t shake the silly habit of using the p-word. The conversation was moderated by Dean of Academic Affairs Bill Grueskin, who began the interview with his own questions and then asked those submitted by the audience.

What do Sulzberger and Robinson make of those resourceful folks who find HTML codes for beating the paywall system? “It’s called theft,” Sulzberger translated. “We recognize that there are going to be ways of getting around the gate, of gaining access to the content in ways that are, at best, immoral. If I were to run down Broadway, I could probably pass a newsstand and grab a copy of The New York Times and keep running. I could do that right now.”

Robinson was quick to tack on the fact that the Times would be policing their web traffic for such treachery.

Who had the most influence in the paywall decision, Google or Apple? “It’s neither. This is a decision we made,” Sulzberger maintained. He acknowledged that there would certainly be a need to customize the reader experience and adapt an increasingly app-friendly product, “as the digital moves from ‘search’ to ‘social.'”

Yet, Sulzberger rebuked the notion that Apple’s stronghold as a news distributor is worrisome, or even new, for the Times. “It’s not any different from when people buy The New York Times from a newspaper stand. We don’t know who you are. You can have The New York Times delivered by us, or you can have it delivered by someone else. We’ve had such partnerships for a hundred and fifty years.”

Sulzberger seemed big on this idea that just as the paywall shouldn’t be called a paywall, the unfamiliar and complex shouldn’t really be considered unfamiliar or complex. NYT digital subscriptions encompass several pay plans, including smartphone, iPad and full web access–yet any confusion about the value of each plan, the relationship to the print subscription, or the user interface is all psychological.

“Let’s talk about complexity,” Sulzberger indulged. “If you want to get home delivery of the Times in print, there’s one plan that’s seven days. There’s another plan that’s Sunday only. Then there’s a third plan, that’s called ‘The Weekender.’ I know this is sounding complex, but bear with me, ok? So you have three different print plans that you can choose from. And sometimes, on top of that, you can even go outside and–”, then gesturing like he was buying a paper, Sulzberger finished his thorough illustration of how Times readers are so much smarter than they think they are. “It’s new. Let it breathe before you judge.”

When it came to the audience question of how low-income readers would access The New York Times, Grueskin stepped in to provide some context–“This is the Columbia Journalism School, hotbed of Bolshevik thought.”

Following a contemplative pause, Sulzberger drew the parallel to print newspapers again, conceding that it will most likely cost more to access web content if that content actually costs money. Robinson made the more substantive point that students from low-income families will still be able to access the Times through their teachers, who receive special deals for education.

In the end, Sulzberger and Robinson’s chief message seemed to be that the paywall serves to create a new revenue stream for the Times, and to do the noble work of protecting quality journalism. As Grueskin re-quoted from The Onion, “To ask NYTimes.com’s 33 million unique monthly visitors to switch to a cash-for-manufactured-goods-based model from the standard everything-online-should-be-free-for-reasons-nobody-can-really-explain-based model is pretty fearless. It’s almost as if The New York Times is equating itself with a business trying to function in a capitalistic society. In a statement released last Thursday, the newspaper’s publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. said, ‘If this fails, I’d honestly rather The New York Times not exist in a world where people are unwilling to pay the price of a fucking movie ticket for a monthly online subscription.'”

And to this Sulzberger admitted, “it’s the first time they’re quoting me accurately.”