The New York Times Pay Wall: A Goodwill Membership?

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Photo: nytimes.com

The New York Times pay wall will go up in early 2011, possibly as early as January. Last week, Slate.com asked readers how much they thought the Times would charge per month, with choices between $5 and $25. Most of the roughly 8,000 people who responded guessed that the cost would be $10 per month or under, with an average of $8.20.

The Times presumably has more finely tuned research. The paper has already established that it's going to construct a metered pay-wall system. A certain number of stories will be accessible free in a given time period, and after that, you'll be forced to choose between a variety of payment options.

Whatever the monthly price, the newspaper will be targeting a very specific audience: People who rely on the Times and also feel too guilty to deploy the inevitable pay-wall-skirting methods the Internet will no doubt come up with.

There is no such thing as an impermeable pay wall — just ask the record companies. Whatever digital restrictions the Times sets up, there will always be some ingenious hacker (or even just someone who knows how to cut and paste) who will figure out a way over, under, or around them. The trick is to make it just inconvenient enough to get around the pay wall. Then, at an attractive price point, the people who love the paper will be theoretically willing to pay for it.

In other words, the Times is probably hoping its monthly subscribers will share the mentality of supporters of nonprofit institutions like NPR. Not the actual public radio setup with annoying pledge drives — that model was examined and abandoned long ago by the Times brass — but the spirit of the thing: loyal readers who will pay the monthly fee for the benefit it gets them, but also for the feeling of (let's face it, liberal) self-satisfaction that goes with a little bit of generosity and helping an important institution survive.

This is obviously not a traditional business model, and you can't expect everyone to give you money because it feels good. The Times is smart enough to know that. The average nytimes.com user visits roughly four times a month, for example, which means that person wouldn't hit the pay wall. That's good news for overall traffic, but also probably means that the infrequent visitors will be turned off by fees.

Earlier last week, the Nieman Journalism Lab surveyed a panel of experts to see what they thought would become of the pay wall once it was launched in early 2011. Most of them predicted it wouldn't last until 2012. I think it will last longer than that, in some form or another. But in the throes of a particularly ugly recession, the New York Times will be putting the kindness of strangers to a daunting test by asking them to give money to a for-profit company for a product they used to get for free.