Arthur Sulzberger Jr, chairman of the New York Times, popped up in London today at a WAN-IFRA seminar and told us what we mostly already know about how the paper plans to charge its digital readers in the New Year. But he was more interesting about how the Grey Lady wants to be hugged by its readers.
Having been burned on one earlier paywall experiment, Sulzberger is now an evangelist for “test and learn”. If one scheme doesn’t work he told his audience more than once, we’ll drop it and try another one. The plan which has so far been eight months in development and will launch in January or February will allow users of nyt.com a set number of items for free, after which they will be charged.
They’re still working on what content exactly counts for moving a user towards triggering a charge. Thye haven’t decided the pricing. They’re still working on how the search engines will reach them. A user arriving at an NYT story from a third party will be allowed the “first click” free. The paper wants, Sulzberger said, to be part of the “free eco-system.”
Sulzberger painted these decisions as part of a larger reconsideration of what kind of relationship the paper wanted with its digital readers. We are rethinking, he said, “the very nature of engagement.” The language of marriage is not inappropriate here, for Sulzberger wants the NYT to bond, truly, madly, deeply with its readers. The relationship is glued by emotion. With the possible exception of the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, the New York Times is one of the most formal papers on earth. Yet respect isn’t enough. It officially wants to be loved.
Sulzberger sees the audience as “knowledgeable participants” in the paper. He wants to create a social connection that “isn’t marginal but central”. They’re going to use Twitter much more to stream out specialised streams of tweets tailored to the particular concerns that their readers reveal to them.
There of course lies part of what this is about. Only by hugging your readers close do you find out more, much more, about what they like and don’t like. That knowledge may help the NYT to give those loyal users more of what they want. And they may mind less that they have to pay.
This new model or “equilibrium” (you pay if you’re a heavy user – we’re get more open, flexible and warm-hearted) will prove “wantedness”, Sulzberger said. “The era of free, professionally-crafted content is over.”