Clay Shirky channels David Cohn in comparing NYT paywall to NPR


In an extended interview on “Talk of the Nation,” Clay Shirky explained why the newspaper industry’s paywall experiments represent a shift from the product-based business model to a donation system like NPR’s:

I mean, what we’re seeing now – again with the Times, the Star-Tribune, the Sun Times – is that a small core of readers will come forward and support the paper. And this is I think a really interesting change because it isn’t just, hey, we got a new source of money, which is always welcome in the newspaper world, but also because psychologically it moves the Times, the New York Times business model closer to NPR’s, where a majority of listeners don’t donate in any given year, but those of us who do sign up, become … members of their local station give money, are supporting the enterprise for the rest of the population.

…That means you’ve got this small subset, as NPR has a core of users that support it, you’ve got now in these newspapers a small subset of their users who aren’t just customers but are approaching a condition like members.

Sound familiar? Here’s Spot.Us founder David Cohn’s take on the Times’ paywall in April:

Whether or not they know it, and without identifying it as such, the New York Times has taken a big step towards the NPR model. …

You can call it a “pay wall” or a “metered wall” but, again, I think we should call a duck a duck. This is a donation system, plain and simple. News organizations don’t want to refer to “metered walls” as “donations,” and I understand why. I’m happy to stroke their hair as they cry into their ink-stained hands. We can call it whatever they want, but it’s a donation because there is no HARD reason for anyone to pay it other than because they want to or are too uninformed about how to get around it.

Also on “Talk of the Nation” with Shirky was Denise Warren, the Times’ chief advertising officer and general manager of “I think Clay has outlined it exactly right,” she said. She said the Times hasn’t seen much effort to game the paywall because “most of our users are honest, most of them are going to sort of abide by the rules that we’ve laid out, and they don’t really want to work that hard.”

Related: Latest numbers indicate New York Times traffic is flat since paywall (Poynter) | Ryan Chittum says the lesson of paywalls is simpler than Shirky suggests: People will pay for news when charged (CJR) || Earlier: Three key elements of Times’ paywall (Monday Note)

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  • digidave

    @facebook-504633504:disqus @TrevorButterworth:disqus I too will give credit to Clay for figuring out the NYT paywall is akin to NPR’s donation system. In the end I’m just glad that somebody of his caliber is also saying it publicly. As I see it – there are two directions for the NYT to go with its paywall and the current incantation will evolve into one of the directions

    1. Truly become a membership model in style and name. Donations will come equip with member benefits, tote bags, etc (not sure what the NYT might offer, but we can put on our thinking caps – it’s not that hard.

    2. Truly become a hard paywall and make the transaction truly about access (it currently isn’t).

    If I were a betting man I’d put money on the first. It won’t take long for somebody at the NYT to ask “hey, I wonder how many MORE “members” we can get if we just include X, Y or Z. If the revenue from the increase membership base is more than the cost of X, Y or Z – then it’s not a difficult choice to make.

  • Dan Mitchell

    Yes. This notion is so singular and unique that it couldn’t *possibly* have been arrived at by more than one person on the planet. Therefore, Shirky must be “channeling” Cohn.

    Off to read Romenesko now.

  • Anonymous

    The odds of two people independently coming up with the same observation from among a limited set of possible observations on paying for content is rather high, don’t you think?