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With the future of paid content online anyone's guess, the publishing world eagerly anticipates news on The New York Times' paywall. Announced in January, we still have months to go before the paper unveils its official metered model. But executives have been giving hints. And today, Times chairman Arthur Suzlberger let the audience at CM Summit know that his newspaper is not above following the business model of low grade drug dealers: give people a few hits and then get them to pay.

However, it sounds like The Times is smartly going to follow an age old newspaper trick as well: let a few people get access for free.

Outlining The Times' commitment to digital, Sulzberger made clear that his paper will not cut off its content from the crawl of search engines. Though details for The Times' metered model have not been finalized, Sulzberger says that web surfers will be able to get to The Times for free through social and search links:

"People will have a chance to go to the site and read a certain number of pages. Free. We also are going to keep the social networks open. If somebody is sent a link to a New York Times article, they can open the link."

As Federated Media's CEO John Batelle pointed out on stage, that's a lot like the way drug dealers get users hooked. Sulzberger joked:

"Sure. Have some heroin. It's on me for the first three hits."

As Battelle points out, giving away a few hits of free content could lead to a lot of freeloaders who put in a little extra effort to avoid ever paying. Something as simple as deleting cookies often could avoid the paper's metered model indefinitely. Says Battelle:

"You're going to be responsible for the greatest wave of cookie deletion in the history of the internet."

But actually, letting freeriders access the paper's content could be good for business. Print subsciptions have always worked that way. For decades, newspapers have leaned on a mixed model of subscriptions and advertising to pay the bills.

Charging for the product has the joint benefit of bringing in some revenue and creating a fixed audience number to use to sell ads to brands. But there is often a lax attitude to letting a few free papers slip away. Sulzberger uses this example:

"You can steal a newspaper off the newsstand now and run onto a bus."

More common is the example of someone paying for one paper in a newspaper box and grabbing a whole stack of papers. Most people who pay for one paper only want one paper. But newspaper boxes have never been built to curb newspaper theft. If someone grabs a whole stack of papers, they all count towards the publisher's larger circulation numbers that are sent to advertisers.

In the digital space, providing loopholes for readers to access the site will also help increase the paper's circulation numbers. Of course, The Times hopes that not everyone will take advantage of the option.

"We believe brand loyalists are goign to support this," says Sulzberger. "But we're going to make it easy. That's why it's taking so long."

Moreover, the paper is taking a Google-like approach to digital payments. Google is famous for keeping its products (such as the widely used Gmail) in beta for years on end. 

So far, 350,000 people have downloaded The Times' iPad app. Currently, it is free. But that will change. And The Times will dial up or down its pay meter according to audience demand.

Regardless of the platform, Sulzberger insists:

 "It's the same system — quality journalism attracts a quality audience that attracts quality advertisers."

And if the Times builds in a way for resourceful web surfers to get to the paper's content for free online, it could also help increase its advertiser rates through its free backchannel.

Meghan Keane

Published 7 June, 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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