Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The New York Times recent web traffic numbers neither confirm nor contradict the paper's paywall strategy

At a recent conference in Austria, Jim Roberts, assistant managing editor for digital, revealed that the New York Times continues to see growth in its online readership numbers despite the launching of its paywall.

"I argued against it," Roberts told a UK journalism site. "It was a position that wasn't extremely popular throughout our newsroom but I really worried a lot that our audience which we had worked so aggressively to build would shrink a lot."

In his talk to Journalism.co.uk's Rachel McAthy (read the whole story here, along with an audio clip), Roberts said that the paywall strategy has worked out well so far, much better than he anticipated.

"I'll say its panned out great, to be honest," Roberts said. "Listen, we wanted the New York Times to continue to be open. We really felt like there is an importance to having an open web – there is no question about – and we wanted to be part of the open web, but we wanted to develop another stream of revenue."

To date, the NYT's paywall has generated 224,000 digital subscribers, according to Roberts, though it is unknown exactly how many of these are actually paying as the paper has offered some subscriptions for free as part of an advertiser marketing program. Over 750,000 print subscribers have also registered to access the content as part of their paid subscription package.

These are all fairly good numbers and indicative of the fact that the paywall was well designed. As a result, web traffic at the NYT continues to grow. "In September of 2010 versus 2011 there was a 2.3 per cent increase to a total number of 34 million of U.S. uniques," Roberts said.

But it should be remembered, though, that the Times had, before the paywall, been reporting web traffic increases of over 10 percent. On the other hand, 2011 is not an election year, a time when web traffic typically spikes for news organizations.

Everyone in the newspaper business would like a final verdict on paywalls, but I don't think that either this piece of news coming out of the World Editors Forum in Vienna really gets us closer to answer. I know advocates of paid content strategies have a lot riding on the NYT's efforts, but the NYT, along with other papers such as the WSJ, are in a unique position to institute paywalls because of their positions as leaders in their fields.

Further, the strategy the NYT is employing, with its metered and very leaky paywall, allows for readers to access content easier than a simple subscriber wall.

But don't get me wrong, I'm still a fence sitter on this issue. I applaud the Times for experimenting with their paywall and predict that it will stick, at least in some form. My skepticism continues to center around the idea that any local newspaper can create a paywall, even a leaky one, and succeed. A newspaper has to be able to answer the fundamental question "why would a reader pay for access to our site?" and answer it honestly – a very difficult thing to do for most newspaper executives.