That The New York Times asks readers to sign in to access most of its online content has long been a point of contention in the wild open source range that is the internet. Not only should access to content be free, readers insist, but it should also be universal and require no privacy-violating account. In the advent of Twitter and Facebook, where everyone seems eager to connect one's identity with the restaurants of which we are "fans," the links we read, even the friends' status updates and links we "like," this seems to have faded.

These old privacy concerns will, I expect, resurface as news that The New York Times is considering charging a monthly access fee to its web site, nytimes.com; in a survey, the company asked print subscribers if they would pay $2.50 or $5.00 per month to read the paper's content. The consideration is not merely academic; a spokesperson confirmed the statement, "The New York Times website, nytimes.com, is considering charging a monthly fee of $5.00 to access its content, including all its articles, blogs and multimedia," was in fact a possibility. In the face of huge advertising revenue declines -- 27 percent in the first quarter 2009, and analysts expect a similar fall to be reported in the second quarter -- it's unsurprising that the newspaper might look elsewhere for revenue.
I fear that the results of this survey may not reflect the sentiment of the general readership. Print subscribers have already proved they value the content of the Times enough to pay for it; and dedicated online readers like myself might value it but simply be unable to afford it. The newspaper has to be a necessity for online readers to pay in this economy; and the general sentiment of the well-educated and dialed-in audience of the newspaper is, I believe, a contrarian one.

Yes, some would pay. But far more would consider the protection of the content a drawing of lines in the sand; protectionism and snobbery and a capital "E" on the long-held "Elitist" criticism. Gawker found the potentiality "inevitable" and "necessary" and most of its readers agreed; on Twitter, first responders were mixed about 1/2 and 1/2; on one side, "that's starting to not sound totally crazy"; on the other side, "umm, no."

While upper-income readers who don't currently subscribe to the New York Times' print edition will certainly see the $5 fee a small price to pay, many others will forego reading the Times entirely and online discussions will change from a link to articles and discussion there to a summary of articles, with discussion dispersed. Here in Portland, where we frequently discuss the latest reference to Portlanders in the New York Times, I can predict exactly what will happen: the few subscribers will pull-quote the portions that reference Portland, or Portland-ish causes, and everything else will be ignored. Times writers with a wide following, like Nicholas Kristof, David Pogue, and Michael Pollan, will continue to be followed on Twitter and Facebook but will have to pull the most important essays outside of the subscription wall to generate the wide, cross-generational impact they desire.

It will, suddenly, alter the New York Times from the paper of record and the common generator of most-discussed writing to the paper of an elite subset. Perhaps it will allow for the company's financial survival; but it will destroy a wide swath of its relevance. It's a bad idea, and I hope management sees that before it's too late.

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