The New York Times announced yesterday that it would charge readers to use its Web site starting in 2011 by capping the number of articles we read for free. The idea is that the Times can keep a core group of monthly visitors, lose a bit of traffic and advertising revenue, and make it up with subscriptions to unlimited use of the Web site. This is a good start. But it can be improved. Here are five more ways to make you pay for the New York Times' Web site.
1) Keep the Top Homepage Story Free
The NYT has adopted the Financial Times strategy of running a "meter" on readers so that they have to get our their credit cards after reading X number of stories. But it could also take a page from the Wall Street Journal, which keeps main stories free and charges for deeper analysis. The Times could make its top story permanently free by excluding it from the "meter" to keep readers coming back to read the most important story right now in the world. In other words, you could do nothing but read the top story on NYT all day, every day, and never run into the paywall.
2) Keep the Blogs Free
Felix Salmon is right about this: Nobody will pay to read blogs. That's not to say they shouldn't. Truly, I consider some blogs out there more insightful useful for understanding politics and policy than newspaper articles. But somehow, paying for access to a running diary of thoughts just seems wrong at the moment. It would be like paying extra for bread at a nice restaurant. I love bread. Sometimes it's my favorite part of the meal. But if I saw "breadbasket" itemized on the dinner check, I think I might try to come at the sommelier with the complimentary pen.
3) "Run the Meter" for All Other Stories, Multimedia, and Op-Eds
Excluding the story at the top of the homepage and the Times' blogs, they could run the meter for all other clickable items on the Web site. So if the ceiling of free content were 30 articles a month, you would have to start paying after reading, say, 15 regular articles, 5 Thomas Friedman op-eds, 6 multimedia pieces and 4 editorials.
4) Add a Free "10 Stories of the Moment" Feature to the Homepage
This is the craziest idea I have. Here's how it would work. The homepage editor of the site should curate a list of the top ten "most important" stories on the site -- just like The Daily Beast's "Cheat Sheet" and Slate's "Slatest" -- except the Times' Top Ten list would be all NYT content. It would also be free. Each story entry would -- similar to Cheat Sheet and Slatest -- be one paragraph stitched together from the lede, the most important paragraph and most important quote from the original NYT story.
Why parasite your own work and give it away for free in bite-size? At least three reasons: (1) It keeps people coming back to the site as a free source of important stories and breaking news so that the Times retains both traffic and ad dollars; (2) Nobody reads entire NYT articles anyway; (3) Aggregators are stealing the Times' content already, so why not beat them at their own game and create a free digest of your best stuff right there on an NYT ad-supported page?
5) Show Freeloaders What They're Missing
I've already asked the Times to keep make it's main story free, keep its blogs in front of a paywall, and give away the beating heart in the ten biggest stories of the hour. What am I thinking? First I'm thinking that readers won't pay to read blogs. Second, I'm thinking that if the Times doesn't create some free, easy-to-navigate Top Ten list of the biggest stories every hour, millions of news junkies will abandon the site in favor of a thousand other breaking news sources like CNN and Reuters where they can read nearly identical stories for free. News is a commodity. The Times' advantage is theoretically in its analysis and in-depth reporting. So the 2011 Web site needs to be aggressive about bundling its most tantalizing stories together to create the impression that the monthly subscription -- whatever it is -- is a small price to pay for the kind of analysis, and insight and glittering multimedia information they'll glean from the site.
In short, the Times has to walk a tightrope. To keep readers, it has to remain a free source of at least some breaking news. To turn readers into subscribers, it has to promote the heck out of its juiciest stories and sell its most colorful content loudly.