Does It Really Take a Year to Build a Pay Wall?

Published on January 20, 2010
by Peter Kafka

Is the pay wall plan for the New York Times too late? Will it generate too little? We won’t know for some time. Because the paper, which lost $35 million in the last quarter, says it won’t finish building the wall until 2011.

If that time frame puzzles you, you’re not alone. Plenty of pundits are wondering what kind of digital wall could possibly require a year’s worth of assembly. Can’t you just slap this stuff up pretty fast? It’s the Internet, after all.

New York Times (NYT) Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and CEO Janet Robinson, in their memo to employees, stress that the paper is moving with “appropriate care” in the next 12 months because “it will take time to get this right.”

Perhaps there are other reasons to move slowly. The duo’s memo, for instance, holds out the possibility that the paper might end up working with a partner. Steve Brill’s Journalism Online consortium, which is promising to create pay walls for a large number of papers, would be one option.

And last I heard, some News Corp. (NWS) officials were holding out hope that the Times could join its pay wall consortium. (News Corp. also owns this Web site.) If the Times does want to play well with others, moving slowly might make some sense while it waits for said others to catch up.

Meanwhile, some cynics (gasp!) have suggested that the Times announcement is merely a trial balloon. Though I have to confess I don’t see what that would accomplish.

But assuming the paper does go it alone and does intend to build this thing, would it really take a year? Yes, say two publishing sources with first-hand knowledge of both pay walls and big publishing companies.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that there are at least three different problems to solve: Authenticating current print subscribers so that they can get the online paper free; installing the “meter” that measures use for nonprint subscribers; and creating a commerce engine that can take orders, process subscriptions, figure out how to provide bundled offers–i.e., the cost of online access plus, say, a Kindle or Apple (AAPL) tablet subscription–etc.

None of this stuff ought to be rocket science, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard, my pay wall experts say. Even if the Times builds its new pay wall on the bones of Times Select, the newspaper’s 2005-2007 attempt, it could easily take it a year to assemble this thing, they insist.

It’s possible that my sources are talking their book a bit–if building a pay wall were easy, there’d be less work for them. But I’m willing to take them at their word until someone convinces me otherwise.

Return to: Does It Really Take a Year to Build a Pay Wall?