At some point today a few newshounds may run nose-first into the nytimes.com pay wall. If you do, the Times would like you to feel just guilty enough about consuming all this amazing free journalism for years that you're willing to tithe the rough cost of a fancy martini ($15 or more) every 30 days. Back in December, we called this the Goodwill Membership — a business model that depends on a certain sense of altruism or guilt, familiar to the NPR listeners who also happen to read the Times. After all, the pay wall will be easy enough to get around. In yesterday's New York Times Magazine, Executive Editor Bill Keller made his last play at guilt-prone readers who might buy a subscription — and he laid it on thick.
A few weeks after taking Arianna Huffington and her army of bloggers to task, he used this week's column to further tout the Times' brand of reportage:
We put a higher premium on accuracy than on speed or sensation. When we report information, we look hard to see if it stands up to scrutiny. We put our faith in the expensive and sometimes perilous business of witness. I think even readers who assume this is how we operate would marvel at the excruciating care our reporters have taken in reporting the cascade of tragedies in Japan — extracting nuanced meaning from a story that is hard to reach, possibly dangerous, immensely complicated and befogged by ignorance and obfuscation.
Okay, so the column is Keller's opportunity to brag. And, admittedly, it's a little fun to read the inner thoughts of the captain of the varsity awesome team. (Although it's probably best not to quote your unnamed adversaries out of context in an article about the value of accuracy.) But Keller isn't doing this to toot his own horn — he's writing these paeans to the Times so that you'll stop taking it for granted. And it is a noble cause. I wish we lived in a world where we felt like paying for things that are wonderful just because they are wonderful. Then we could erect a fence around Central Park and charge an admission fee, and all of the city's budget problems would be solved.
But we don't, and that's why the Times' guilt trip is bad messaging (even when it's more eloquently expressed by supporters outside the paper). It's true that some readers might be swayed by Keller's arguments, or their own personal calibrations of guilt and merit and obligation. But most people don't read the paper because they admire its ethics — they read it to be informed and entertained.
The pay wall, which only kicks in if you read twenty stories a
week month and can't be bothered to search out links to Times stories from other websites after that, is a bet on convenience. It's a bet that there's enough money to be made from readers who want to flip through a lot of Times stories every day to more than make up for advertising revenue lost to those who go somewhere else when they hit the weekly quota. (Reuters blogger Felix Salmon, one of the leading critics of the Times pay-wall strategy, has noted that even if the paper loses readers, it could come out ahead by charging higher advertising rates for those that remain.)
When Keller started his column, there was a general worry that he would make life difficult for his staff by expressing political opinions and revealing bias at the paper. So far he hasn't done that, but he's found another way to make trouble. The editor of the nation's Paper of Record is certainly in a position to criticize his competitors — but that doesn't mean he should. His finger-wagging feels like lecturing, and, as Gawker pointed out, is cranky-old-codger-like. He's got one of the biggest horses in the race, so why would we trust him to make the finish-line calls?
As I said, I hope the Times pay wall succeeds. But if it does, it will be because of Bill Keller the editor, and in spite of Bill Keller the columnist.