Bill Keller Responds to Time‘s Cover Story: What About a Voluntary Pay Model?

29keller-190.jpgNew York Times executive editor Bill Keller has been doing the “Talk to the Newsroom” feature all week and it’s made for some interesting reading. The other day he said that a “lively, deadly serious discussion continues within The Times about ways to get consumers to pay for what we make.” Today he responds to this week’s Time ‘How to Save Your Newspaper’ cover story by Walter Isaacson and says the Times has received “more than a few offers from readers who want to pay voluntarily.”

A voluntary pay model — perhaps we could refer to this as the Radiohead approach — is apparently a more attractive one to both Keller and his staff who discussed it this week. He also suggests that people who feel guilty about getting their Times for free could subscribe to have their copy delivered to a school.

I found some things to quarrel with in [Isaacson’s] essay. He’s a little credulous about The Wall Street Journal‘s online subscription model, which he seems to see as a stroke of modern business acumen. I suspect Rupert Murdoch’s decision not to make the Web site free when he bought The Journal had a lot to do with another reality: The Journal’s online subscriptions are bundled with print subscriptions, and freeing his online content would have hurt his print circulation, and thus potentially his print advertising revenue. Neither Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp. nor The New York Times publishes details of their Web economics, but The Journal lags far behind The Times in Web traffic, and I’d be willing to bet it also lags behind in total revenues.

More important, Walter doesn’t really grapple with the main puzzle of a pay model: how to keep it from stifling traffic, especially search-driven traffic, so much that online advertisers go away. I’m not saying that problem is insoluble. Just that, as far as I know, no one has solved it yet.

We had a lunch with a group of reporters and editors this week, where conversation ranged across various pay options. In that group, the favorite idea — especially among younger and more Web-centic staffers — was a voluntary pay model. Imagine a digital version of the NPR membership drive, which allows you to be a reader for free, but invites you to be a member/sponsor for a modest fee.

By the way, I enjoyed Time‘s cover photograph of a fish wrapped in The New York Times, a reminder of the many eco-friendly reuses of the newspaper that the Web has yet to match. Papier-mache. Pirate hats. Gift wrap. Have you ever tried to line a bird cage with Google News?