Facing the worst financial situation in its history and being challenged to produce more revenue from its increasingly important digital ventures, The New York Times is revisiting a tried and true business model: charging people for content.
Despite the fact that NYT abandoned its TimesSelect subscription service in September 2007, New York Times Editor Bill Keller told the audience at a Q&A panel that "The lesson of that experiment, however, was not that readers won’t pay for content...Really good information, often extracted from reluctant sources, truth-tested, organized and explained — that stuff wants to be paid for."
And if it wants to be paid for, The New York Times is looking to chase down those who will do the paying. It's currently looking at ways to start charging for its content again.
Does this mean the return of TimesSelect? Probably not. While Keller raised the possibility that the problem with TimesSelect was that "the wrong items were placed behind the pay wall", he noted that unlike WSJ.com and FT.com, The Times has a different audience and a different focus that makes it harder to charge for its content. But even so, Keller admitted that "a subscription model might be worth a closer look" in certain circumstances.
Other possible models?
Micropayments or an iTunes model might were mentioned but micropayments are still tricky business and as PaidContent.org's David Kaplan observes, Apple makes its real money selling the iPods, not the music.
Amazon's Kindle was mentioned. The Times is selling a downloadable version of its paper for Kindle owners but Keller revealed that "just not enough of them" are buying - "so far".
Another way to get paid for its content: become a non-profit. It's an idea that some have floated and even though The Times is looking at all of its options, a transformation to a non-profit is unlikely. As Keller pointed out, there are strings attached when you rely on endowments and other organizations for funding and even they're hurting in this economy, leaving little guarantee of future support.
So what's The Times to do?
If it wants to charge for content, I think some sort of subscription model will be required. The question is whether or not The Times can find a way to package up its content in such a way that people see real value in subscribing.
Unfortunately, when times are tough and paid content looks so appealing, getting people to pay for it becomes an even tougher challenge. This is especially true when you've been giving all of your valuable content away for free in the first place, marginalizing its real value.