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The Kingdom and the Paywall

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Current editor Bill Keller announcing pay cuts and furloughs in 2009.  

That’s part of the reason the digital-subscription plan felt like a Hail Mary. This time around, the strongest sentiment in favor of it came from the newsroom. “The demand [for Times journalism] is enormous,” Keller says. “And, you know, where there’s a short supply and a huge demand, eventually a business model will emerge. I realize that sounds more faith-based than reality-based, but I think it’s proving to be true.”

It will take years for the ultimate wisdom of the Times’ strategy to be apparent, but the company’s second-quarter-earnings report proves that its digital-subscription plan has thus far been an enormous success. The internal projections have been closely held, but several people have confirmed that the goal was to amass 300,000 online subscribers within a year of launch. On Thursday, the company announced that after just four months, 224,000 users were paying for access to the paper’s website. Combined with the 57,000 Kindle and Nook readers who were paying for subscriptions and the roughly 100,000 users whose digital access was sponsored by Ford’s Lincoln division, that meant the paper had monetized close to 400,000 online users. (Another 756,000 print subscribers have registered their accounts on the Times’ website.)

With the exception of websites charging for sports statistics, financial data, and porn, that makes nytimes.com one of the very few content providers that is monetizing its users—not that the Times is relying solely on this infant revenue stream to set its books in order. Two thousand and eleven will mark the third year in a row that the Sulzberger family has foregone its stock dividends. Since 2006, the company’s annual operating expenses have been cut by almost $860 million, to just over $2.1 billion—which is one big reason the company went from losing $520 million in 2006 to making $234 million last year.

For the Sulzbergers, the paper has always been a calling— a kind of holy eccentricity—rather than a business.

The fact that Keller now feels comfortable enough to step down—he will be succeeded by managing editor Jill Abramson in September—is a sign that the paper appears to be on solid footing. “Nobody’s claiming that the transformation of our business is over,” Keller says. “But I think there’s much more of a sense of confidence that the Times will live on and prosper.”

One of the most remarkable things about Keller’s stint in the executive editor’s office is how placid his tenure has been—which is to say, he’s had to deal with less griping and backstabbing than any other editor in the history of the institution. Part of that is undoubtedly owed to his nonconfrontational demeanor and a purposeful campaign to restore a sense of calm to the newsroom—but there’s also the fact that when an institution feels as if it’s under attack, its members tend to close ranks.

“My tenure has entailed a lot of crisis management,” he says, “everything from journalists in peril … to the kind of existential question of our business model, to adapting to doing journalism in a digital world. And a huge, painful recession, which entailed staff cuts.”

There have also been some journalistic controversies along the way—the failure to rapidly correct the WMD reporting, the false rape allegation involving Duke’s lacrosse team, the tortured front-page article about John McCain’s relationship with a lobbyist. But in general, the Times’ journalism has improved during his tenure, with strong investigations, more aggressive business coverage, and robust international reporting. Even in the midst of budget slicing, Sulzberger has allowed Keller to make a slew of impressive hires—Anthony Shadid, Joe Nocera, James B. Stewart, Susanne Craig, Peter Lattman, Peter Baker, and Jackie Calmes, among others—from other newspapers, whose publishers (among them the Times’ old rival the Washington Post) were eviscerating their newsrooms. As the other papers got weaker, the Times only got stronger.

In fact, the loudest dissents about his stewardship have centered on his column in the Times Magazine, launched in March, in which he sprayed sarcasm and invective at an odd range of targets: Twitter users, staff members who write books, and media-business competitors (memorably, if maybe not prudently, he called Arianna Huffington “the queen of aggregation” and mocked the Huffington Post as an amalgam of “celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications,” all set to “a left-wing soundtrack”).

It’s very possible that, with the fledgling success of the paywall, the Times is about to enter a new era of normalcy, which would mean a return to the internecine squabbling and byzantine turf wars that the paper has been famous for for decades. When a family isn’t fighting for survival, it’s free to attack itself. So it is perhaps a hopeful sign for the institution that Abramson’s ascension is accompanied by the faint sound of grumbling.

It’s not Abramson’s being the first female editor that makes her an unusual figure for the job. When Abramson takes the reins at the Times in September, she will have served at the paper for less time than any other executive editor in the paper’s history. She is the first editor in the past 40 years never to have had experience overseas. After a stint working for Time while still an undergraduate at Harvard, Abramson spent the first twelve years of her career covering law for The American Lawyer and Legal Times. In 1988, she began working in The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau, and she rose to prominence covering the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. (It was also during the Thomas hearings that Abramson first got to know Maureen Dowd, her best friend at the paper.)


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