Can the New York Times become like the iTunes Store?

"More than half the students in my Yale journalism seminar volunteered recently that they thought the Times was a non-profit institution!" writes journalist, teacher and entrepreneur Steven Brill. The founder of Brill's Content, a magazine that tracked the media industry until it folded earlier in the decade, made this statement in a supposed "secret memo" to the New York Times, which later popped up on Jim Romenesko's media blog.

The core of Brill's proposal: The Times must stop giving away its articles for free to readers, and stop relying on advertising as its primary source of income. Instead, he suggests the Gray Lady copy from Apple's iTunes Store, which Brill says "turned my children from music pirates to music micro-buyers."

The Times has experimented with many online business models. A premium content service, TimesSelect, was terminated in late 2007 for lack of subscribers willing to pay US$49.95 a year. Brill's memo urges the Times to instead consider charging a few cents for every single story through an easy to use, iTunes-inspired interface. He calculates that collecting a dollar per month from each of the Times' 20 million monthly unique visitors would nearly match the site's current ad revenue. Three dollars per month "would completely reverse the fortunes" of the paper.

Brill doesn't go deep on how a New York Times store would work. Here's a suggestion: The Times could partner with browser makers -- Microsoft, Apple, Mozilla, and others -- to build a Times store into their downloads, just as Google partners with browser makers to place a Google search tool atop each window.

Brill has many more suggestions, but his basic argument is this: Top-notch publications shouldn't be afraid to charge for their content. They should stop trying to compete with search engines for ad revenue. Google's carefully-targeted ads, he says, will always be able to deliver advertisers more for their dollar than a newspaper site.

(Disclosure: Paul Boutin is a freelance writer for the Times.)

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