The future of the Times: Better than you think

David Geffen, your services may not be required.

Last month, the billionaire Dreamworks co-founder quietly extended a lifeline to the Sulzberger family, signaling his willingness to buy The New York Times and set it up as a non-profit. It looked like a plausible out for the Sulzbergers, who were thought by some observers to be in real danger of losing control of the paper.

But maybe not? Advertising Age crunched the relevant numbers and pronounced the Times more solvent than its critics would have you believe. On current trends, and assuming only the very modest improvement in the advertising market that most analysts expect to see over the next couple years, the Times Co. will most likely be able to meet its debt obligations until 2015, says Ad Age.

Six years may not sound like much of a reprieve for a paper that's been around since 1851 and owned by the same family since 1896. But this is going to be a pretty important six years. Already, the past six months have seen more experimentation and intellectual ferment in the newspaper business than the decade that came before.

By the end of this year, the Times will probably have shifted from its current all-free, all-ad-supported digital model to a "freemium" model wherein readers are expected to pay for certain types of enhanced content. (The first step looks to be charging for Times access on mobile devices.) It may also have joined forces with Journalism Online, which says it could help a Times-sized paper earn an extra $110 million over two years, or with Attributor, which thinks it can help news organizations extract licensing fees from outside websites that repurpose their content.

And that's just in the remainder of 2009. By 2015, the media environment will have changed in all sorts of unforeseeable ways. Maybe widespread failures of other newspapers will have driven up demand for the Times's reporting. Maybe new ad formats or targeting technologies will have made it possible to charge ad rates for digital content similar to those it now charges for print.

And if not, there's always David Geffen.

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