New York Times: What Would Facebook Do?

The New York Times needs to learn the lesson that Facebook is teaching the Internet: identity is the secret to online success. That was the message from Martin Nisenholtz, NYT's senior vice president for digital operations, in a broad, but revealing, Friday speech at Wharton (transcribed by PaidContent here).

Readers spend much more time with the print edition of the Times than the online version, Nisenholtz noted. It's not just the Times, of course. It's every online media company. The average American reader spends 2,000% -- yes, 2,000% -- more time with a physical newspaper than a newspaper website. A 60-second impression means zip to advertisers, so they pay zip per impression.

But readers do spend a lot of time on Facebook. In fact, American Internet users spend more time on Facebook than on Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Microsoft, Wikipedia, and Amazon combined. Identity changes the rules of engagement, Nisenholtz concludes. If we can get online readers to spend Facebook face-time on high quality sites, maybe advertisers would pay more for the longer impressions.

Essentially, the New York Times wants to read its readers. It wants to know who they are, what they like, what they've read, what they want to know ... even where they are. That's one reason why the company recently invested in Foursquare, the social media service that lets users tell their friends what restaurants and cafes they've stopped in. If advertisers can know who and where their viewers are, they'll pay a premium to show ads to them.

But the New York Times still doesn't know how exactly it's going to make the quantum leap from newspaper on the web to newspaper of the web, to borrow Nisenholtz's phrasing. In 2011, the website installs a meter that will force readers to pay after viewing X-number of free articles. Here's an idea. If the paper sees a huge drop-off in readership, it should consider offering news readers a way around the wall: they would have to create a Times profile by filling out information that the company could push to advertisers. It's Facebook, for news. Readers share demographic and consumer information about themselves in exchange for a free reading experience, and the Times charges advertisers higher rates for the audience information.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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