The New York Times vs. Bloggers Debate Heats Up

The New York Times aims to start charging frequent online readers starting next year. But will the plan backfire if bloggers stop linking to the newspaper?Yesterday, I asked whether The New York Times's (NYT) plans to start charging online readers next year will end up damaging its status as a favorite source of links for news bloggers. It turns out that many others have thoughts on that question, including people at The New York Times itself.

A spokeswoman for the paper emailed me to say that most Times readers will be unaffected by the pay wall, which will only target frequent users. "The pay model will be designed so readers that are referred from third-party sites such as blogs will be able to access that content without hitting their limit, enabling to continue being a part of the open Web," she wrote. Peter Kafka of All Things Digital got the same spiel, and concluded that the Times is exercising "common sense" and not doing anything that would discourage bloggers from linking to its stories.

Essentially exempting blog links from readers' metered page-view quotas (although that's not exactly how it will work; read Kafka's story for the nuance) is a good idea, but it doesn't totally solve the problem. It's not just that bloggers don't want to send their readers crashing into pay walls; it's that the bloggers themselves don't want to crash into those walls, ever.

Why Bloggers Won't Pay

Yes, one would assume that most serious bloggers, the ones actually capable of channeling a lot of traffic to, will subscribe once the new pay regime kicks in. But some won't. Why? Either because they're lazy, because their employers no longer let them expense it (the Times itself has cut back on subscriptions to save money) or because they'll assume that the newspaperwill just end up scrapping its pay plan after a few months -- as it did in 2007 with its 2-year-old TimesSelect pay program -- or will at least raise the page-view limit to a workable level.

Even those bloggers who do subscribe may find themselves using the Times's site less if the subscription function operates anything less than absolutely seamlessly. As Felix Salmon notes, "I hate the [Financial Times] meter, despite the fact that I have a full subscription there, because when I follow a link to from Twitter on my iPhone, I run into the firewall." Agreed. I would absolutely link to FT a great deal more in the absence of a pay wall, metered or not.

But maybe the Times shouldn't care? Marion Maneker of The Big Money takes issue with my premise that the Times would be hurt if no longer held the title of one of the most linked-to news outlets. After all, click-through rates for those links are low, and the Times, like most papers, still hasn't figured out how to adequately make money from the page views it does get. "Now, I understand why a blogger would measure success by looking at links to bloggers," writes Maneker. "But in the real world, generating revenue to cover costs is of greater concern."

Accusing me of blogocentrism is fair enough, as it goes. But the Times is a mission-driven paper. It does not exist just to enrich its owners; it exists to extend their influence and to inform its readers. Ask publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. if he likes the idea that one in five (or so) online conversations about the news begins with a New York Times article. Wait, better yet -- ask News Corp. (NWS) CEO Rupert Murdoch if he likes it.
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