NYT editor Bill Keller directly addressed questions about the paper's business model today—specifically, about charging for online news, and the possibility of the paper going non-profit. He'll have to decide sooner than he'd like.
Keller doesn't really give yes-or-no answers in these reader chats as much as he mulls possibilities. But it's still a nice look into the world of NYT executive thinking. Of charging for online news, Keller acknowledges that Times Select was a failure, but says:
The lesson of that experiment, however, was not that readers won't pay for content. A lot of people in the news business, myself included, don't buy as a matter of theology that information "wants to be free." Really good information, often extracted from reluctant sources, truth-tested, organized and explained — that stuff wants to be paid for.
"Wants to be paid for" is probably the wrong term, but generally I think he's right. Print ad revenues are going down, fast and probably permanently. Online ad revenues are rising over the long term, but are nowhere near enough to make up for what's being lost in print ads. So how do you plug that revenue hole? Either continuing, massive cuts in the newsroom and elsewhere—which may have to come regardless, but are always a matter of degree—or an increase in subscription revenue. That means more money from the website. If that can't be done through advertising, it has to be done through charging for online access.
Keller says that could either mean an outright fee to access the website (which would make sense only if it wouldn't cost them more in a loss of readers and ad revenue); a micropayment model for individual stories (which would require good, widely accepted micropayment technology, which doesn't really exist at the moment); or "New reading devices" for which the NYT could sell daily downloads.
All of the above could work. Micropayments would be great, if someone could set up a viable way to do them. Some smart people (here at this very website even!) think that it would be a terrible move for the NYT to charge for access to any of its website, because a huge portion of its readers would just abandon it and move elsewhere (here, for example! We'll have a subscription).
So here's what newspapers need: some collective action. What if, say, the 100 biggest papers in the nation all started charging for online access at once? That would make it much harder to track down quality news for free. People happily paid to read newspapers before the internet came along. Then newspapers started giving away all their content for free, and now people think that it should be free. But if a paper's website can't pay its own way through online advertising, and if it doesn't somehow bolster print ad revenues, then it has to charge for access. It's common sense. Millions of extra online readers are nice, but if they don't bring in more money than they cost you, they're no good for the paper.
Would people rather pay to read the current level of NYT journalism, or have it go away? That's the fundamental question.
Keller is lukewarm at best about a non-profit model. So paid access to NYTimes.com might be coming sooner than you think. The cheapskates among you, though, can always read about all the important parts right here.