Thursday, September 09, 2010

End of the Print New York Times?

The New York Times is the "newspaper of record," probably the most respected and best known paper published in the United States today. Although it is the hometown newspaper for the New York City metropolitan area and a reliable source for stories of local interest, it is also national and international in the scope of its coverage. Like most other newspapers, the Times has been struggling with crafting a business model that will enable it to be relevant and financially solvent in an era when people have so many ways, many of them free, to get their news. The newspaper erected a paywall and took it down again in 2007 because of disappointing revenues, and has announced that it will start charging for content again in 2011. Times articles will continue to be accessible to search engines.

This history (and the fact that I once worked for a Times subsidiary) explains my interest when my colleague Jack McNeill pointed out a posting in today's Huffington Post. Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, "acknowledged Wednesday that the newspaper will go out of print--eventually." He did not provide any idea of how soon this might happen. Nor did he provide any insights about the company's long-term plans except to say that media companies need to remain flexible and open to new approaches. His remarks were made at the WAN-IFRA 9th Annual International Newsroom Summit in London. More information about Sulzberger's remarks is available here. According to Business Insider founder Henry Blodget , the basic problem is this:

'The economics of the online news business will not support the infrastructure or newsroom that the printed paper supports. Unless the New York Times Company can come up with a miracle new digital revenue stream, therefore, it will eventually have to be restructured and downsized (or sold to a deep-pocketed Sydney Harmon-type [sic] who runs it at a loss out of love).' [Sidney Harmon recently purchased Newsweek magazine and is attempting to revive it.]

The online Wall Street Journal now charges for access, and seems to be successful. Is this because it occupies a niche position and readers don't have many options for the content it offers? Is it because Journal readers are more affluent and can afford to pay for content? Is what the Times offers sufficiently unique and valuable that users will pay for it, or will they get their news elsewhere? What makes a paper like the Times special is the quality of the reporting, and this is expensive. If it doesn't have the revenue to pay for the reporting, will it become just another newspaper and lose the qualities that make it special?

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