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01.21.10

NPR Chief Says Leave Zucker Alone

Vivian Schiller, who killed The New York Times’ last attempt to charge for content, tells Lynn Sherr why she now supports the new model—and why innovators like Jeff Zucker at NBC should be encouraged.

Just over a year ago, Vivian Schiller pulled the plug on the last attempt by the New York Times to charge some visitors to its online site. As the head of NYTimes.com, she explained why in a September 2007 open letter: “We believe offering unfettered access to New York Times reporting and analysis best serves the interest of our readers.” The echoes from the cyberworld were triumphant: “Content,” wrote more than one blogger, “is now and forever free.”

Cut to today. You might expect that Schiller, now president and CEO of National Public Radio, would be out there waving the “free content” sign against the new announcement that the website will start charging in 2011. You would be wrong.

People are afraid to try things because they get eviscerated, like Jeff Zucker did at NBC. But conceptually what he tried was really creative.

“I actually applaud the Times and I think it’s a good thing,” she told me. “Somebody had to try this and the Times has the best shot at making it work.”

Schiller’s turnaround has less to do with the Times than the times. Back then, she told me, “It was important to build a mass audience. When we took the pay wall down we went from 12 million unique visitors per month to 20 million. That’s pretty quick. But today–and the internet works in dog years, so two years ago might well have been 15 years ago–the business model is that mass numbers won’t lead to an increase in advertising. You need to come up with a second revenue stream.”

And it’s got to be different. The old business model, Times Select, charged $50 a year for access to columns by the newspaper’s op-ed stars and archival material. Some 225,000 readers signed up. But the pay wall alienated many others and sent them away. As Schiller told me last June in an interview for More magazine, it threatened the nature of their journalistic goal. “If you lock up content behind an iron gate,” she said to me then, “you will cease to have a voice in the national dialogue.”

Today’s plan, she says, is better. “The metered model”–in which The Times will charge an as yet unspecified amount for articles beyond an also unspecified free first look–“gives them lots of control and flexibility,” she says. “You can turn it up. Or down. You can adjust it. And they’re not cutting off access to the New York Times to someone who wants to come there in the first instance.”

But will it work?

“I have no idea,” she said. “There are two risks: are they going to drive away loyal users used to getting content for free, who will go elsewhere? I think that’s a small risk. The much larger risk is that they’re going to spend an enormous amount of man-hours–building this, making it work, doing strategic planning–and will there be enough payoff to make it work well? How much revenue will this generate?”

It will have to bring in more than the $10 million that Times Select earned, she pointed out. “The New York Times makes over $1 billion in revenue each year. $10 million is not going to have an impact on the bottom line. They have to make multiples of tens of millions.”

It will, she said, take time, but it clearly also marks the potential end of complimentary content online. For those of us who, um, generate content for a living, the news leads to more speculation. With the Financial Times already doing a version of metering; with the Wall Street Journal behind a plain old pay wall, who’s next?

“For organizations that have the wherewithal to create the technology, I think it’s worth trying,” Schiller told me. “It’s not that risky, really. I think everyone should try. Will it save the industry? No, because there’s no way everyone will do it. The notion that all the news organizations will lock pinkies and do this together is nonsensical. Journalists will never come together and make a collective decision. But I would encourage every news organization to experiment wildly with different revenue streams, different ways to engage and monetize their users.”

Schiller paused for a contemporary example. “I think there’s been some fear of movement. That they’re going lose audience, that it will be a high visibility failure. People are afraid to try things because they get eviscerated, like Jeff Zucker did at NBC. But conceptually what he tried was really creative; if it had worked, he would have been a hero. Experimentation should be celebrated, not crushed. I’m kind of hoping that what the Times is doing will give other news organizations permission–from their leaders, from the media critics–to try different things.”

Which is not to say that her own organization will attach price tags to stories on its own website. “We have a pay wall, but it’s voluntary,” she explained. “NPR gets $300 million a year from people making contributions. And you can access our content whether you pay or not.”

Schiller was not gloating, not even a little bit, but she was also not apologetic when she added: “As much as I wish all news organizations well with what they’re doing, if people are turned off by pay walls they can always come to us.”

Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is out in paperback.