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The Kingdom and the Paywall

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Arthur Sulzberger Jr., 2011.   

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear that Sulzberger’s first big initiative—to transform the Times from a regional paper with national scope to a national paper that happened to be headquartered in the Northeast—was a smart one. In the mid-nineties, the Times’ print-side balance sheet was in decent shape, and yet Sulzberger, along with a group of editors and executives that included Times Company CEO Janet Robinson, set about trying to persuade advertisers to fundamentally reconsider their relationship with the paper.

Sulzberger’s “national strategy,” which involved substantial investments in new printing plants and distribution efforts, coincided with a boom in luxury advertising, and within a couple of years, the plan was working. But even as the ad revenue continued to funnel in, there was a new problem looming on the horizon. The Times, like every other newspaper and magazine in the world, was confronted with the strange, new, virtual world of the Internet. Compared with some of his peers, Sulzberger was an early adopter. By the turn of the century, he had a new mantra: He was “platform-agnostic.” In other words, it didn’t matter how you consumed your news so long as you were eating from his newspaper’s plate. Years before the advent of smartphones or iPads, he told me that one of the company’s most pressing goals was to figure out how to reach all the “people we think have an affinity for the Times’ news organization who currently don’t read the Times, either because they can’t get access to it or they may not read it because they don’t read newspapers and they want to access that information [some other way].”

That type of talk might have sounded good at TED conferences and Sun Valley retreats, but it didn’t help relations between the paper’s print and online staffs, which had existed as separate entities since the founding of Times Company Digital, the paper’s Internet company, by Martin Nisenholtz in 1995. From early on, The New York Times on the Web, as the paper’s site was officially called, excelled at creating powerful online content. In 1999, Nisenholtz and his team had put together a database of more than 10 million registered users and had annual revenue of $25 million.

The primacy the company put on its digital operations fueled tension in the newsroom. The subsequent years felt at the time like a perpetually mutating quagmire: There was the bursting of the dot-com bubble; the eventual merging of the print and digital newsrooms; and the odd, ill-fated TimesSelect plan shut down when the paper realized that whatever revenue was being earned by putting most of its columnists behind a $50-a-year paywall was more than offset by the eyeballs it was losing.

Through it all, Sulzberger plowed money into the Times’ web operation—and by 2008, nytimes.com had become one of the most impressive news sites on the planet.

Not that that meant much to the company’s creditors. In the fall of 2008, when the bottom fell out of the credit market, the Times Company appeared to be in danger of defaulting on a good portion of more than $1 billion in outstanding loans. Early the next year, TV executive and media maven Michael Hirschorn parsed the numbers and argued in the pages of The Atlantic that it was “certainly plausible” that the Times could go out of business as early as May 2009. Even if the paper (and the company) survived, Hirschorn wrote, there would be “significant and traumatic change”—and at some point in the not-so-distant future, the Times as it currently existed would cease to be.

The anxiety at the Times, and in the media in general, was often overpowering. That spring, I was at The Four Seasons for a party celebrating the release of Street Fighters, former Wall Street Journal reporter Kate Kelly’s book on the collapse of Bear Stearns. As I was getting ready to leave, a Times business reporter took me aside and asked whether I thought it was time to look for a new line of work. “We’re fucked,” he said. “Not just the Times; everyone, the entire industry—fucked. This is all going to be over very soon.”

“There was a sense of anxiety in the newsroom at large,” Keller told me in April, during an early-morning conversation in his third-floor office. “No matter how many times I stood up in front of the staff and tried to reassure them, I think if you had some sort of a newsroom mood ring two years ago, it would have been flashing whatever color represents fear.”


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