article

04.05.11

Arthur Sulzberger's NYT Paywall Defense

The New York Times' new plan to charge online readers is no more complex than the print system, the newspaper's publisher insisted at a Columbia University journalism school event. Nick Summers on Sulzberger's testy appearance.

Arthur Sulzberger was getting irritated. The New York Times publisher was on the dais at Columbia University on Tuesday night, fielding questions about the newspaper’s new plan to charge its readers online.

There was confusion about how much the pay meter costs, a Columbia dean, Bill Grueskin, noted. The website plus a smartphone costs $15; use an iPad and it’s $20; use all three for $35; or just choose any print subscription. Could readers be forgiven for feeling the system was overly complex?

“Let’s talk about complexity,” Sulzberger said. “I don’t know how to break this to you, but if you want to get home delivery of the Times in print—look, there’s one plan that’s seven days. There’s another plan that’s Sunday only. There’s a third plan that’s called ‘The Weekender.’” By this point he was laying it on pretty thick. “I know this is sounding complex, but bear with me! OK? So you have three different print plans that you can choose from. And sometimes, on top of that, you can even go outside and buy it.” Sulzberger’s voice was dripping with sarcasm; on the dais next to him, Times CEO Janet Robinson maintained a poker face.

If Sulzberger was exasperated, it’s because he’s been subjected to a bit of a barrage lately. Nine days after the Times’ pay meter went into effect in the United States, there are questions—lots of them—about how the model works, how much it cost to develop, whether it is at odds with the essential fabric of the Web, why certain Times fiefs are exempt, the powerful influence of Apple and Google, and many more. Aside from perhaps Facebook, there may be no other company whose attempts to get paid for what it does receives such scrutiny.

Sulzberger has been, at times, less than felicitous in his explanations. Last summer, he raised eyebrows by agreeing at a public appearance that the Times was pursuing a “ drug-dealer model”—as in, the first few tastes (articles) are free, and then the charges begin. Last month, he said that the only people who would try to skirt the Times meter would be “ mostly high-school kids and people who are out of work.” (“I can’t believe I just said that,” he added.)

“If I were to run down Broadway I could probably pass a newsstand and grab a copy of The New York Times and keep running. ... It’s called theft.”

At the Columbia journalism school event Tuesday night, Sulzberger repeated an analogy he has made about such people. “We recognize that there are going to be ways of getting around the gate, of getting access to the content in ways that are at best immoral,” he said. “Just as if I were to run down Broadway I could probably pass a newsstand and grab a copy of The New York Times and keep running. ... It’s called theft.”

There were other questions about the Times pay meter. (Audience members were gently scolded for using the term “pay wall.”) Had it really cost $40 million to devise the code, as has been reported? “Vastly wrong,” Sulzberger said. Will the Times merge with Google or Bloomberg? “No.” What about a blog post by a former employee lamenting that during the pay meter’s long gestation, entire innovative companies like Groupon and The Daily were launched? Robinson answered that one: The Times had spent the period aggressively cutting its costs.

An audience member asked: How will low-income residents now access The Times at home?

There was a moment of silence from the dais. Sulzberger said, “I’m sorry—what?” The audience laughed. In an academic, leftist setting, the question made a kind of sense. But on any level of inspection it was absurd, and Sulzberger’s pique showed again.

“Just translate that question to print,” he said. “‘How will low-income people get access to The New York Times in print?’”

Finally, Grueskin read aloud something from a surprising ally: The Onion, which had recently run an item headlined “NYTimes.com’s Plan to Charge People Money for Consuming Goods, Services Called Bold Business Move.” The satirical site fake-quoted Sulzberger as saying, “If this fails, I’d honestly rather The New York Times not exist in a world where people are unwilling to pay the price of a fucking movie ticket for a monthly online subscription.”

Grueskin offered to clean up the quote for the audience.

“Don’t!” Sulzberger said. “It’s the first time they’ve quoted me accurately.”

Nick Summers is a senior writer for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Previously, he was the media columnist for The New York Observer, founded the blog IvyGate, and was editor in chief of the Columbia Daily Spectator.