6:20am

Sun October 30, 2011
The News Tip On Weekend Edition Sunday

The News Tip: Don't Listen To Pay Wall Naysayers

Getting people to pay for news online isn't easy, but back in March, The New York Times gave it a shot. The pay wall was seen as a risky move at the time, but the Gray Lady's third-quarter profit reports are in, and the results are better than expected. The paper's profits are up, and the Times has seen a boost in digital subscribers.

Considering these results, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has this news tip: "If you only listen to the naysayers, you'll never succeed."

"It's worth remembering the prevailing wisdom has been that information on the Web wants to be free, and you can't charge people for news as a commodity online," Folkenflik says.

The New York Times took a leap over that notion, and others in the industry agreed it was a necessary change. The day the paper put up the pay wall, Folkenflik spoke with Gordon Crovitz, past publisher of The Wall Street Journal and the head of Press+, a group that's helping news organizations around the country put up their own pay walls. Crovitz said it was time to get creative.

"Ad revenues ... over time, I'm confident, will continue to decline and will not support quality journalism. There have to be other revenue streams," Crovitz said, "and the most typical one has always been letting the most loyal, avid readers help cover the expense."

Back in March, Folkenflik also spoke with Emily Bell, director of Digital Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism and former head of digital operations at The Guardian.

"I think there are so many ways now whereby we can measure whether a piece of journalism is regarded as quality or good or valuable," she said, "which doesn't necessarily have a monetary unit attached to it."

The Times does allow readers to access or share a certain number of articles a month before the pay wall kicks in.

Folkenflik recently asked Bell how she thought The New York Times was faring. It was "still too early to tell," she said, and added, "What's success?"

But the trend is catching on around the country.

"A lot of mid- and smaller-sized news organizations are saying, 'We need to figure out a way to do this,' " Folkenflik says. "It's a time of experimentation in the news business."

What innovation do you want to see news organizations experiment with? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, host: Getting people to pay for news online isn't easy, but back in March, The New York Times gave it a shot. Their online subscription model lets readers access 20 articles a month and then you have to pay a fee to see more. The pay wall was seen as a risky move at the time, but the Gray Lady's third-quarter profits are in, and the results are better than expected. The paper's profits are up and The Times has seen a boost in digital subscribers. To hash out what this means for the industry, NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik is back with us. And, David, what's this week's news tip?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: I would say that it - you know, to steal a page from the late Steve Jobs' book - this week's news tip should be: if you only listen to the naysayers, you'll never succeed.

CORNISH: And, David, you know, the website, Business Insider, ran some numbers and found that before the pay wall, a New York Times print reader was worth 228 times as much as an online reader. And so no matter how much money they're making with this porous pay wall, can it really close that gap between the worth of the print and the online reader?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think it's worth doing a couple of things and thinking about that. First off, it's worth remembering the prevailing wisdom has been that information on the Web wants to be free, and you can't charge people for news as a commodity online; that only specialized financial information and reporting and sports coverage for the most passionate football or baseball fans really induce people to open their wallets and pay for it. But on the day that The Times put up its pay wall, we invited here into our studios in New York two people. One of them is Gordon Crovitz. He's the past publisher of The Wall Street Journal. He's also the head of a group called Press Plus, that's helping news organizations around the country put up their own pay walls. Here's how he explained what the challenge was for news organizations and why it was important to charge people online.

GORDON CROVITZ: Ad revenues are, over time, I'm confident, will continue to decline and will not support quality journalism. There'd have to be other revenue streams. And the most typical one has always been letting the most loyal, avid readers help cover the expense.

FOLKENFLIK: And advertisers, I think it's worth pointing out, do pay attention to the most loyal readers and particularly, as translated in the idea of paying online readers, they're going to value that a lot more than they did people who just click on a site by randomly coming across it. That is intention, however, with this underlying philosophical argument expressed by many, including Emily Bell. She's the director of digital journalism up at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism here in New York. She's also the past head of all the digital operations of the Guardian newspaper, which is based in the U.K.

EMILY BELL: It was about to get the Guardian's journalism in front of as many people as possible so that they would value it in a different way. And I think that there are so many ways now where by we can measure whether a piece of journalism is regarded as quality or good or valuable, which doesn't necessarily have a monetary unit attached to it.

FOLKENFLIK: Now, it's worth pointing out the Times, of course, allows you to access or share a certain amount of articles a month before the pay wall kicks in. But I did ask Emily Bell about what she thought some months later about how it had fared. Her response - short, cryptic - was, quote, "still too early to tell and what's success?"

CORNISH: What about the local papers, and what does this mean for the average news reader?

FOLKENFLIK: What it really means is you're starting to see a proliferation of such experimentations occurred around the country - in Dallas, in Providence, in the Baltimore Sun; Allentown, Pennsylvania, a smaller newspaper. A lot of mid- and smaller-size news organizations are saying we need to figure out a way to do this.

CORNISH: So, David, the news tip?

FOLKENFLIK: If you only listen to the naysayers, you'll never succeed. You cannot be afraid to fail. It's a time of experimentation in the news business.

CORNISH: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

CORNISH: If you want to drop us a news tip, visit NPR.org/TheNewsTip - all one word. You can also follow us on Twitter: @DavidFolkenflik and @NPRAudie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.