Pushing on an open door: Bill Keller’s unnecessary argument for the Times' pay model

The Jesuits who trained me in high school have been accused of, well, being jesuitical. The letter of the law is important to them. The law is there to guide your behavior: if the letter doesn't match the spirit, let them rewrite the letter. I don't believe the Times is unaware of what all the cut-outs mean for the business, so I plan to simply see when and how I bump up against the meter and decide what to do then.

I don't plan to make a point of subscribing to support the Times journalists who put themselves in such danger to report on Libya, and with all due respect to some very smart people who have been making very good arguments in favor of paid content, that does not mean that I don't value the work; though that straw man is real, and there are people who don't value it, these are people Keller does not need. It does mean that there is a moral case for their bosses to start making some money from it, so that they can continue their work.

What worries me about some of the cut-outs is actually something quite different, and now we're in the hazy territory of the internal business culture of the Times. You may remember TimesSelect, the last experiment in charging for content, about which much has been written, but finally about which history has rendered a verdict of failure. I'm not so sure it was a failure. Finally, back then, the editorial columnists that made up much of the material behind the paywall objected, publicly, to their isolation from the free web.

By the time management buckled and dismantled the program, it had reached its goals as they'd been set out (many believed this was cant from the directors of the company, but increasingly I believe that it met old goals but didn't promise to meet newly constructed ones, and also Maureen Dowd is powerful); it had made the organization $10 million, which is as much profit as The Huffington Post made before AOL bought it for $315 million, and had some 272,000 subscribers in two years. 

So when Andrew Ross Sorkin announces, rather proudly, that his blog, DealBook, will not be counted on the Times meter, one wonders how the decision was made. The reason DealBook readers are getting to read for free? "To honor our commitment to our loyal DealBook readers."

What is the specific business constituency within the Times that is rooting for the success of this venture? On Twitter, some of the reporters were almost obnoxious in their support for it—as though anyone who objected to being charged for the Times was a greedy infant; trust issues, again. It would be interesting to know, subtly and over time, how many Times journalists feel the pain of being behind a paywall and slowly start to turn cold on it; whether they feel, as Sorkin has said he does, that honoring a commitment to readers means free news. It's more profitable for a reporter, after all, to turn cold on management than on his or her readers.

Certainly the large, and profitable, ad sales department can't be in love with the reduced pageviews the meter implies in the short term. (There are interesting developments there, of course; one argument says that with registration comes user data, with user data comes behavioral ad targeting, with behavioral ad targeting come higher ad rates, so an article behind the paywall might, in time, actually earn more advertising dollars than one reached by one of the drive-by readers.) Patience is required, though. Whether that particular constituency has the patience to wait out a longer term, and whether in the meantime management will be able to hold firm to their paywall policies against their likely objections, can't possibly be clear anytime soon.

But we do know this about the Times, thanks to Keller. Each day is another opportunity to do it again, this time the right way. And that will stand the Times in good stead, as long as they're not too quick to judge yesterday's effort a mistake.

So why is it that the rhetoric of the Times' leadership doesn't betoken courage so much as defensiveness?

When it comes down to it, it's the Times that made itself into a giant news organization capable of fielding significant teams of brave reporters abroad. There's a reason they are not a nonprofit, and it has to do with their independence.

The Times should be unapologetic about its efforts to make itself financially healthy, honest about the costs in the short-term with readers and internal constituencies alike, and most importantly, the Times should not lecture its readers about their moral obligation to pay, especially if those imprecations are also snide about the competition as a way of reminding us what we'd be left with in their absence.

Times reporters, however, should be apologizing to readers they're losing, and should get them back by the sheer strength and speed and usefulness of their reporting. The organization needs to lose its bitterness and its self-righteousness and get back to business.