Salvation or Mirage? The New York Times Paywall

Abstract

CSJ-14-0054.0 This case looks at a question that news organizations continue to struggle with as the traditional business model crumbles: install a paywall or not? For over a decade, news organizations have implemented paywalls, or taken them down, or refused to institute them at all. The technology has advanced but the philosophical questions about how to value content remain. Case readers will be taken behind the scenes at the New York Times in 2009, when it was deciding whether to try again for a paywall and, if so, what kind. The case features interviews with participants in the decision making process, from business to editorial and digital. It tracks the various, often unpredictable, agendas that each brings to the table.

Students will learn about how key strategic decisions are taken at a newspaper like the Times. They will gain an understanding of the disruption the Internet has caused to the standard advertising/subscription-based business model, and some of the efforts made to devise a new approach to generating revenue. They will have the opportunity to examine the varieties of paywall adopted by various news organizations, and to discuss what worked and why. The Times, for example, launched TimesSelect in 2005 and closed it two years later. What made it reasonable to try again in 2009?

The case asks students to consider in particular the roles of what have long seemed separate parts of a news organization: the business side, the editorial side and, more recently, the digital enterprise. Does the so-called church/state divide have any continued usefulness? If not, what should the new rules be? How much should editors consider the needs of their business colleagues, and vice versa? What are the merits of a paywall and why do some publications decide firmly against it while others embrace it? Are paywalls a stopgap measure or a solution? What is the value of content?

Use this case in a course/class about strategic management, business of media, or digital media.

Credits:

This case was written by Kimberly Patch for the Case Consortium @ Columbia and the Graduate School of Journalism. The faculty sponsor was the George T. Delacorte Professor in Magazine Journalism Prof. Victor Navasky. (0614)

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