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Much digital ink has been spilled this week over The New York Times' decision to install a metered payment system on its website. But all of the hypothesizing about the fate of the paper and its advertising revenues leaves one question unanswered.

The paper won't implement the new system until 2011. Will the paper's talent stick til then around to see their audience shrink?

Let's start with this basic premise: No writer wants to be behind a paywall. While online advertising strategies differ, for a writer, it's best to be seen by the most readers possible. And the cache of working for the Times shrinks exponentially as the audience size dwindles.

With 15 million monthly visitors, The New York Times has set itself up as a defacto international paper of record online by providing free access to its articles. By following in the footsteps of The Financial Times and allowing sporadic readers access to a few articles and charging all others, The Times hopes to increase subscription revenue without kneecapping its advertising plans.

According to The Wall Street Journal, NYTimes.com currently brings in more than $100 million a year in ad revenue. Papers like The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times have much smaller audiences, but they also provide niche financial content that readers (and corporations) are willing to pay subscription fees for. But The Times prides itself on its broad coverage. And newsroom cutbacks this year aren't going to help the paper compete for new and interesting angles against the (free) competition.

According to Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the paper is waiting until 2011 to implement this strategy so that they can "begin the thought process that’s going to answer so many of the questions that we all care about. We can’t get this halfway right or three-quarters of the way right. We have to get this really, really right.”

The decision may also give other papers time to implement their own pay walls and get on board with the idea of charging for online content. But one thing it also provides is time for the paper's writers to consider their futures at the paper.

When the Times implemented its buyout system earlier this year, old timers weren't the only ones to leave. Young writers, like City Room blogger and lifestyles reporter Jenny 8. Lee, were among the departed. Meanwhile, tech writer Saul Hansell left the paper last month to helm AOL's Seed.com, presumably for much more money.

Many publications can provide better salaries than what reporters at the Times are currently making. What they can't produce is reach. But behind a paywall, The Times isn't likely to get that either.

That may not be a huge deal for the paper's advertising plans. 

While NYTimes.com has sold out its homepage numerous times in the past year, advertisers may also be interested in reaching a smaller, more curated audience. In addition, The Times could start collecting more data on its subscribers that could be very valuable to marketers, as analyst Ken Doctor points out:

"Those who do subscribe via metering may become among the most lucrative ad targets. Look at it this way: the Times will know the most about these customers -- more frequency of usage; more clickstream data; more declared preference data -- and that's highly useful in targeting advertising."

But for the paper's writers, a smaller audience may not be appealing. The paper's previous attempt to charge for content, TimesSelect, put the publication's most popular content, like its famous editorials, behind a pay wall. TimesSelect didn't last long — the paper pulled the plug on it back in 2007. In its announcement of the Times' new plans, New York Magazine quotes editorial writer and best selling author Tom Friedman's reaction to that effort:

“As we got into it, it was clear to me I was getting cut off from a lot of my readers in India and China where 50 dollars per year would be equal to a quarter of college tuition. What was coming to me anecdotally from my travels was the five worst words that as a columnist you ever want to hear: ‘I used to read you before you went behind the wall.’”

And Friedman's not the only one with that concern. Other journalists at the paper are worried about what this will do to their byline and readership. Most of the paper's writers active on Twitter have been posting about the decision with little commentary on their part. Those who have written positively about the effort understand that publications may have to charge if they want to keep paying writers. But that's not to say that staying at a big old media brand is the best decision for popular Times writers.  

David Carr's article today called the plan " a hedge, an operating model that puts maximum flexibility in the hands of the leadership of the newspaper." But the delay in implementation leaves a lot of variables for January 2011 up in the air.

The New York Times has a year to work out the bugs and sort out exactly the details of its metered system. But that also gives the paper's talent a lot of time to decide what they want to do with the content they produce.

If anything, it looks like the paper's editors and writers, who have notoriously valued print bylines above online posts, may be singing a different tune this time next year. If blogs continue to have free public access, expect a lot more hustle on that front at the Times.

Image: Robert Scoble

Meghan Keane

Published 20 January, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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