New York Times executives have debated the merits of charging users for access to its flagship NYTimes.com Web site, though the company said it has no immediate plans to do so.
The New York Times Co. spokesman Toby Usnik noted that the site charged non-U.S. visitors when it debuted in January 1996. That experiment ended in July 1998 after the Times concluded it would impede the site's audience growth.
“While we will continue to review our business model, at this time we have no plans for NYTimes.com to become a subscription site,” Usnik said in an e-mailed statement.
The comments came after the Jan. 17 issue of Business Week published comments by The New York Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. alluding to a radical shift in the online strategy of one of the Web's largest, most prominent news sources.
“It gets to the issue of how comfortable are we training a generation of readers to get quality information for free,” he told Business Week in the magazine's cover story. “That is troubling.”
By shifting to a pay model, The Times would risk drastically cutting its online audience, which, in turn, would hamper its efforts to attract advertisers. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, NYTimes.com drew 9.5 million visitors in November, placing it in the top 10 of online news sources.
Nearly all of NYTimes.com is free to users. The site charges for access to archived content, some newsletters and crossword puzzles.
The online advertising industry has staged a remarkable comeback from years of decline following the dot-com meltdown. Online ad spending is projected to grow 30 percent in the next year to top $10 billion, according to ad market forecaster Jack Myers. Piper Jaffray analyst Safa Rashtchy last week predicted a big leap in spending by brand advertisers, who still spend little of their marketing budgets online.
Online advertising has fueled healthy profits at The New York Times' online arm, New York Times Digital. In the first half of 2004, NYTD had $53.1 million of sales and $17.3 million in operating income. The company stopped breaking out its online results in the third quarter.
NYTD has led numerous online innovations. It was one of the first sites to collect demographic information for use in targeting ads. It pioneered the use of so-called surround sessions, which let an advertiser display messages to a user throughout a visit. NYTimes.com was the first site to use half-page Web ads, which are now common on Internet sites.
A move to charge would cut into NYTimes.com's audience size and buck the recent trend from companies like Google and Craig's List to provide users free content and tools. AOL, long the foremost proponent of a paid subscription strategy, will debut shortly a new AOL.com site for non-subscribers to try to attract more online ad sales.
Some prominent news sources, mostly appealing to business and finance professionals, already charge for access or limit it to print subscribers. The Economist and The Financial Times keep most of their content unavailable to non-subscribers.
The most prominent media proponent of an online subscription model, Dow Jones' Wall Street Journal Online, recently made moves to open more of its content to non-subscribers. In October, it allowed free access to the site for a week, and last May it began sending bloggers links to stories that do not require a subscription. A Dow Jones spokeswoman said the site is considering similar initiatives to raise the visibility of WSJ.com to non-subscribers.
Brian Morrissey covers online marketing and advertising, including e-mail marketing and paid search, for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters