Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Back to the Future: How the New York Times Saw the Web in 1995

arthur-sulzberger-jrNew York Times (NYT) chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. may not have figured out how his paper can adapt to the Web age yet. But give him credit: He’s been thinking about the idea for more than a decade.

Here he is in 1995, at a Harvard University forum on journalism in the “on-line era,” thinking outloud about the ways his company might make money in the Internet era.

This is all an experiment. We don’t know where this is going. In the end, it’s going to have to pay for itself. We do know that. In the end, it’s going to have to pay for itself. And there’s not a lot of ways to make money.

As far as I know, there are only four–three, if you exclude blackmail–“Mr. Roberts, I won’t put that information up in exchange for $100,” which may be the only way to make money at this business today. Either the reader is going to pay or the advertiser is going to pay, or we’re going to get a piece of the transactional action. If the reader decides that she wants to get theater tickets from the Shubert organization for “Cats,” one, we’ll try to talk her out of it, but if she still goes out to see “Cats,” then maybe we’ll get, you know, one one-hundredth or one-tenth, or whatever the heck it is, of that transaction.

I had no idea Sulzberger harbored such an anti-”Cats” bias. Who knew?

I’m also not sure what to make of the fact that the Times–and everyone else in the news business–is still struggling with online economics 13 years later. Should the industry get credit for grappling with a problem that’s much harder than it looks? Or should our collective big brains have resolved this one by now?

Thanks to Harvard’s excellent Nieman Journalism Lab for digging up the transcript of the forum, which also featured tech pundit Esther Dyson; Walter Issacson, who was at the time a top executive at Time Warner’s (TWX) Time Inc.; and Frank Daniels III, publisher of the now-defunct Nando.net. You can read the entire thing (warning: very, very long)  below.

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