The New York Times, as expected, seems to have settled on a date for the paywall to go live: January, 2011.
There’s no point in hashing out, again, whether or not this is a good idea for the New York Times and the many other major metro papers considering such a move. The one good thing about paywalls going live is that the theoretical questions will finally be answered in the real world.
No, what’s interesting is whether this is a good idea for other sites serving those same markets. If, for instance, The Chicago Tribune eventually opts for a paywall of any kind, do the people in the newsroom of WLS and other local media bliss out over the potential for reaching more news consumers? What about the rapidly growing ecosystem of micro-local news and information sites serving communities and towns? If your local newspaper walls up, will you pay, or find other sources?
By stepping back from a 100% free model — no matter how carefully (and slowly – we’ve been talking about this for years) — the large news sites can’t help but create some amount of vacuum into which the smaller sites — and audience — will flow.
But that’s where this all gets very interesting. Because if we’ve learned nothing else in the past decade, it’s that gathering a large audience — “eyeballs,” as the ad guys used to say — is no longer enough. Large publishers and tiny publishers need to cover their costs and make a little profit in the bargain if they’re going to continue publishing. So flowing into the vacuum isn’t enough for the upstarts — they need real business plans.
Recently in the NY Times Magazine, there was a long look at the business models of the non-traditional publishers that have emerged in recent years. It strikes more of an elegiac tone than I think is entirely appropriate, implying that the task is Sisyphean, but it’s essential reading for anyone trying to understand the struggles the journalism business model is facing and will continue to face.
The overriding theme: The future is much, much leaner for journalism, and that business models will need to change, radically, to accommodate that fact:
…the new world could end up looking a lot like the old one, albeit with smaller newsrooms and new players. Politico replaces the Washington correspondent, TMZ is the gossip page and you can get coverage of your baseball team directly from MLB.com, which employs professional sportswriters. In cities like San Diego, New York and Washington, online start-ups are taking on metro news coverage, hoping to tap local ad markets. All of these publications have been hiring real, full-time employees — as have nontraditional providers like Yahoo, which is constructing a new political news site.
If you’re a journalist or a publisher, whether you read that passage and weep or rub your hands with anticipation and hope is a good indicator of what the next few years hold in store for you.
Photo: Creative Commons license, flickr user Shawn Econo.