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The New York Times Might Ban Visitors Who Use Ad Blockers

'This stuff is not made for free,' says CEO

CEO Mark Thompson compares reading the Times to watching HBO. Getty Images

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson did not mince words Tuesday when talking about ad blocking, which has been causing more than a few headaches for publishers.

During a keynote discussion at Social Media Week in New York, Thompson compared using ad blockers to stealing a print issue from a newsstand. "Trying to use and get benefit of the Times' journalism without making any contribution to how it's paid is not good," he said. "Everything we do should be worth paying for. Everything should feel like it's HBO rather than a broadcast network."

Thompson said the Times' subscription model only covers some of its costs. "This stuff is not made for free," he said. Thompson was blunt about ad blocking companies that allow publishers to be "whitelisted" (meaning their ads won't get blocked). Such companies "essentially are asking for extortion to allow for ads to take place," he said. "That should not be allowed."

Thompson said he is considering banning ad-blocking readers who are not subscribers, as some publishers have already done. "In the end, they're not really helping pay for what they consume," he said.

As print revenue declines, digital advertising is becoming that much more important for the Times, which has a circulation of 1.38 million, behind USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.

During the fourth quarter of 2015, the Times reported a 7 percent decline in print advertising revenue but an 8 percent increase in digital. Thompson said the Times is increasingly pivoting away from traditional display ads toward more branded content. "That is actually a better way of engaging people's attention if a commercial partner wants to get a message across than trying to kind of kidnap their attention," he said.

The company also gained 53,000 net digital subscribers during the quarter and now has close to 1.1 million paid digital-only subscriptions. For the full year, digital-only subscription revenue was $193 million, a 14 percent increase from 2014.

Given the Times' goal of doubling its digital revenue from both advertising and subscriptions to $800 million by 2020, Thompson is focused on new ways to increase sign-ups. "There's been an assumption if you can build 200 million uniques, you must be able to make money," he said, noting the importance of digital subscription revenue. "I'm not sure that's the case."

Thompson also revealed the best way to turn New York Times visitors into paying customers: get them to come back. "The Gray Lady's" data scientists have found that users who visit the Times site at least four separate days a month are most inclined to become paying subscribers.

"[Times journalism] is an expensive, handcrafted thing that needs to be paid for," Thompson said.

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