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Industry in 'death throes' seeks online salvation

New York Times plans to charge for content in 2011; will other newspapers follow suit?

January 21, 2010 04:33 PM ET

Computerworld - The New York Times' announcement yesterday that it plans to start charging readers some time next year for unlimited access to its Web site has industry insiders closely watching whether smaller newspaper publishers follow suit.

Times officials offered few specifics of its plan, reporting that users will be able to access a still-unspecified number of articles every month for free, but once that limit is passed, users wil be charged for access. Executives said they're hoping the new Web publishing model will boost the company's online advertising coffers.

The company did not disclose a specific starting date for the pay wall, saying only that it would be launched in 2011.

The publishing giant has reportedly has been mulling a move to a partially paid online access model for at least a year. Media analysts say the move is risky, even for a newspaper with the reputation, national reach and clout of The New York Times, while the vast majority of online content is accessible without charge. Will readers lay down money, especially in a struggling economy, for news stories that are freely available on other news sites?

"For media companies that rely on print advertising for a large share of revenue, the Web has taken a wrecking ball to their business model," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "Over time, more and more free content has been made available on the Web, which has siphoned off eyeballs and subscribers from traditional newspapers. Traditional media companies are between a rock and a hard place."

Desperation can make corporate executives do crazy things like trying to force readers to pay for things that have long been free, media experts said. What traditional media outlets should be thinking about instead is how to repackage and rethink their content so it can be sold onto devices like smart phones and tablets.

"Traditional media as we know them are in their death throes and it's fairly well along at this point," said Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. "The whole notion behind paid content is not aimed at reversing the slide, because it's not reversible, but at least in slowing it down. The future probably belongs to the small and the swift, not these legacy organizations. I think the Times will find a way to survive just because it's still so popular, but the future belongs to small specialized fast-moving projects."

Kennedy pointed out that the Times tried a paid model -- charging for opinion columns -- between 2005 and 2007 but quit when it didn't work as hoped. The Wall Street Journal is one of the few media oputlets that successfully charges for content, but critics note that it is a specialized business newspaper.

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