“I was one of the few in the newsroom who thought it was a bad idea. I was really worried that our audience, which we had worked so hard to attract, would shrink,” Roberts says during the World Editors Forum session, “Paywalls, from the newsroom perspective.”
He was especially concerned that the younger audience, often attracted through social media, would flee. Advertising would follow suit, he thought – if the readership shrunk, so would advertising.
But, speaking today at the forum, Roberts says he was wrong. “Although it is early, our experiment is largely good,” he says. “I would say even successful.”
Porous by nature, the New York Time's paywall is becoming proof that readers will subscribe and pay, even if there are ways to bypass the wall and access content for free. Since late March 2011, print subscribers have been able to access the online edition for free, and digital-only readers are charged US$35 a month if they read more than 20 articles a month. Readers can also access unlimited content by looking up articles on search engines or if someone links to an article on a social media site.
The Times is not aiming for an impenetrable wall like the barrier at The Financial Times. Instead, it is focusing on building a valuable relationship with digital readers, on par with the strong relationship with the print audience.
So far the tinkering with the paid model is working – the paper's main Twitter feed has reached 3.8 million people daily. And the paper's social media audience continues to access the site for free, which Roberts says is really important to the paper.
“We feel like this is a more sustainable business model than advertising,” says Roberts. “I mean when the economy dips, an advertiser is more likely to flee in that environment.”
The paper has 224,000 digital subscriptions and 57,000 e-paper subscriptions. An additional 756,000 home delivery subscribers have taken advantage of free digital access.
In the newsroom, the paywall hasn't had a huge impact – however, among the journalists the paid online model has increased their perception of their own value.
“The value of a paid model cannot be underestimated, but at the same time I feel like it is also sensitive to the ups and downs of those people trying to pay,” says Roberts. “Essentially, though, it has allowed us to continue to invest in journalism.”