In a meeting at the PaidContent 2010 conference today, New York Times Company chairman Arthur Sulzberger tried to shake off the notion that the potential loss of online viewers that could come after the erection of their pay wall would necessarily injure the brand. “We are not trying to eliminate ourselves from the digital ecosystem,” he said, according to FishbowlNY. “We’ll only lose relevance if we lose our brand promise, and our brand promise is having the best journalism you can find.” Sounds optimistic, and the attitude you’d expect from this paper’s leadership as they contemplate this big step. But Martin Neisenholtz, a senior vice-president of digital operations, made a bit of news when he was discussing the online-only brand of the paper. “Our intention is that blogs would be behind the wall,” he said.
It’s not a wall, exactly, but a metered system — one that will require payment after a certain number of article views. But blogs, especially their most popular and frequently updated ones, require constant repetitive viewing. That is, if you’re going to keep up with their blogs, you’ll absolutely have to pay for membership. Which is sort of antithetical to how the Times sets up their blogs. Big ones like City Room and DealBook synthesize print and online content, providing readers the ability to get an enhanced version of the print paper for free. They’ve been designed with giving a more complete picture in mind, seemingly cognizant of the fact that there are users not willing to pay for the paper who need to be served with its content, even if they are just regular “blog” rather than “newspaper” readers.
Leaving the blogs outside of a pay wall would have required that withdrawing of regular print content for it to make sense financially. But the paper is taking an additional gamble that their esoteric stable of blogs with online-only material would remain appealing if they cost money. They’ve already culled some of their more obscure blogs, but as Felix Salmon points out, there might also be an exodus of big blogs like the Freakonomics blog, whose writers are unlikely to be willing to take the traffic hit. (Remember when Times Select pissed off the paper’s opinion columnists when it made their blog traffic plummet?)
Most of the Times’ online traffic is through the homepage and not through blogs directly. But even so, we wouldn’t be surprised if some of the most quickly visible changes on the site come in the blog sector after the pay wall comes up.