The New York Times' announcement that it would start charging for its website in 2011 was more aspiration than business plan. Still, media folk have been debating it like the very existence of the NYT is at stake. It's not.
The debate over paywalls for news sites has morphed into more of an ideological fight than a quest to save the crumbling newspaper industry. On one side is the old guard who argue that someone — whether it's advertisers buying expensive print advertising or readers paying for web subscriptions — should pay for their very valuable product. On the other are the new media types who push the idea that the future of making money in media is maximizing your audience and thus giving away your product for free. Stuck in the middle is the New York Times, which has built the world's best news website. And everyone wants to know which side are you on? The reality is that publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., like everyone else in media, has no idea. But he needed to give the partisans an answer and they got a statement that means anything: they'll spend a year "building a new online infrastructure designed to provide consumers with a frictionless experience across multiple platforms," whatever that means.
And it can mean anything! The specifics are few and far between, but so far the main component the Times leadership has embraced is a "metered" model in which readers will be able to read a certain number of stories per month for free (as the Financial Times does for its website) but after that they'll be prompted to buy a subscription, for some unknown amount, and this will create a new revenue stream.
Which brings us to the third party of the paywall debate: the business types who are looking at spreadsheets. Whatever numbers of stories per month and subscription fees the Times settles on, it will not be much. Here's my back-of-the-envelope estimate.
The Times likes to throw around the number of 17 million monthly uniques for its web site. Quantcast's estimate of NYTimes.com traffic includes a breakdown of how often each of those users are actually visiting the site. Like most sites, the Times has a tiny core, just 1% or 170,000 users, who visit the site more than one time per day or 30 times a month. The vast majority of its users, 69% by Quantcast's estimate, only visit once a month. In the middle, there are 30% who visit between twice and 29 times.
So, let's take a theoretical meter limit of 10 stories per month that any reader can see for free. Sulzberger and Times CEO Janet Robison have hinted that it could be even more liberal than that since, as Felix Salmon notes, they've pledged to not count any page that a reader gets to as link from another site won't count towards the monthly limit. At most my guess is that 20% of the NYTimes.com user would never be bothered by the meter limit.
Then there's a question of just how many of those would break out their credit card if they clicked on that 11th article and were told they'd need to pay to read anything more. Experience says that something like 99% of those people would move on to another site. But let's be liberal and say that the Times quality journalism inspires 10% of those people to buy a year's subscription. The Times would be left with just 2% of its monthly users as subscribers. If that was 340,000 people paying $100 a year, the total revenue brought in by the scheme would be $34 million. Hardly chump change, but a drop in the bucket at an organization that's been looking to cut hundreds of millions out of its cost structure. To his credit, Sulzberger has said that whatever he ultimately implements, it's "not going to be something that is going to change the financial dynamics overnight." He's right.