The New York Times may be the most popular news source on the Internet, but that doesn’t mean they have any more insight into monetizing the web than anyone else in the media. Right now it looks like they’re considering putting their content behind a pay wall again. 

A recent survey sent out to subscribers asked if they would be willing to pay a $5 or $2.50 monthly fee to access the paper’s website. And while getting print subscribers to pay seems like a good way to beef up revenue, it also promises to cut into the paper’s ad revenue and influence online.

The New York Times thrives on its online reputation, and charging for access to the website could choke that off. Furthermore, it will take a lot to get people to pay for things they see now for free. Even in this economy.

, an analyst at Outsell Inc., tells Bloomberg:

“The question here for consumers is the psychological
barrier of now paying when you were getting it for free before,
and you’re going to lose some readers as a result… The New York Times will also have to evaluate what this means
for ad rates as they lose readers.”  

Likely, the Times would work out some mix of free and premium content, but they don’t have the best track record in this area.

The paper made an ill fated decision to put its oped content behind a pay wall in 2005, and learned quickly that its most popular content is not neccessarily its most profitable. Times Select came to an end in 2007.

Even with the economy in a tailspin, charging for access to the website isn’t likely to go over well with consumers. And fiddling with the paper’s status as an international go to online could be problematic. 

There are benefits to putting up a paywall, but they’ll have to charge a lot of money to a lot fewer dedicated subscribers if they want to make it work. And for The New York Times, that could mean giving up their coveted status as a tastemaker online.

The note that is still up on the Times’ website about its decision to shut Times Select seems important in light of this plan:

“Readers increasingly find news through search, as well as
through social networks, blogs, and other online sources. In light of this
shift, we believe offering unfettered access to New York Times reporting and
analysis best serves the interest of our readers, our brand, and the
long-term vitality of our journalism.

We encourage everyone to read our news and opinion – as well as share it,
link to it and comment on it. Our highest priority is to increase the reach
and impact of our journalism online. The Times’s Op-Ed and news columns are
now available free of charge, along with Times File and News Tracker. In
addition, The New York Times online Archive is now free back to 1987 for all
of our readers.”

Image: Pentagram