OFF THE GRID

Here’s an Idea for Saving the NYT: Don’t Charge. Instead, Fire Arthur Sulzberger

Jan 19, 10 | 8:01 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Apparently the New York Times is going to start charging for online access. Putting aside whether this will work, the decision clearly means the Times has decided that the decade or so it has spent not charging was a bad idea.

We’re in one of those problematic loops. The same people who made the wrong decision upon which the company has tried to build its business—and that would be, foremost, the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.—are now the people making this new opposite decision about how to build the business. (Apparently, Carlos Slim, the Mexican bandit and Internet genius who is the Times' largest shareholder, also thinks charging is a nifty idea—so good to keep him happy, I guess.)

In a more performance-based culture, when it becomes necessary to jettison the existing business plan—one in which management has invested the future of the company—you change management.

Not doing so means you’re pretty much managing by crapshoot.

Times people will surely argue that circumstances have changed. But the Wall Street Journal, which the Times now seeks to emulate, made its pay-wall decision years ago. The Times decided then (and every time since when the subject has come up) that the Wall Street Journal had the unique advantage of being able to have its subscription costs covered by business expense accounts. What’s more, the Times believed that with its vast free reach it could make more money through advertising than it could through subscriptions. What’s changed is that there’s now less advertising, but there is not any greater reason to believe that Times readers are more willing or in a better position to pay. So, really only the levels of desperation have changed.

I suppose any of us looking at the future of a free news business and seeing that it has no future (at least no future in which it can support a thousand-man newsroom), would say, what the hell, why not at least try to charge—hail Mary and all.

The obvious is worth stating again: The odds against a newspaper being able to make a business out of charging for content are very great—that’s why no one (except uniquely positioned special interest publications like the Wall Street Journal) has done it before.

Why do it, then? Why bet the farm on no basis at all?

If the Times' shareholders and other people of goodwill feel it is important to save the Times, how come there isn’t some greater call to do the logical thing? Rather than taking the radical step, the no-going-back step, you take the reasoned and methodical one. You fire the jokers who brought the business to the point of having to bet the farm. You start afresh with people who might have better ideas than the ones offered by the people currently running the place, which have failed. Arthur has got to go—something almost everybody knows.

Anyway, as I’ve said many times before, if the Times charges, we will continue to tell you, for free here at Newser, what it’s saying.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at
VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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