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ClubNYT.com: turning the paywall into a velvet rope

"The way to kill a newspaper is to ask more for less," says legendary newsman Sir Harold Evans in his autobiography My Paper Chase.

The New York Times should remember Sir Harold's rule as plans to erect a paywall around its online content in January 2011. 

The paywall means not just that readers will pay more, but that they'll get less. How? The New York Times currently is a must-read for any card-carrying member of the commercial, media, entertainment, educational, and government elites. The paper is read, in part, because everyone reads it.  (Or at least claims to.)

With fewer post-paywall readers, the site will become less relevant, less essential. Which means NYT.com will cost more for less.

[Update 1/27/10: News that Newsday, a daily focused on Long Island, has gotten just 35 paid subscribers to its site since launching a paywall in late October certainly confirms Sir Harold's rule.  Newsday.com's $5 per week online subscription seems reasonable -- little more than a Starbucks coffee, right?]

So how might NYT add value online even as it raises prices?

It should make its smaller, more dedicated audience part of the value proposition. [Update: Newsday.com reports that its readership has fallen 50%, but argues that since these online readers are all also local print readers, they're of higher value to advertisers. In theory, they're also of higher value to each other.]

* The company should spend the next twelve months ramping the social network already nascent among its readers, writers, editors and partners. 

* Some of these social functions could be built in-house, others should be bolted on from LinkedIn and Facebook Connect. (Copy half of what Huffpo does.)

* Think intra-member messaging, micro-conferences, membership schwag, rankings.

* Let members earn points -- think Foursquare or American Express -- that earn them more prominence in the community and/or face-time with Times' talent.

* Emulate a savvy party promoter: comp the people -- pundits, activists, students, community leaders, mavens, industry figures, teachers -- who will add life to the party. 

* As with the planned content wall, drive-by readers should be able to sample snippets from within the social network (reading comments for example), but would not get inside the site's functionality to really participate in the social mix.

With some luck and a good feature set, the newspaper's prodigious reporting and analysis would become the bait for people to come to NYT.com, and the people themselves and their insights are the velcro that keeps them around.

In a world deluged with opinions, rumors, factoids and billions of pixels pumped out by anybody with a cellphone, smart Times readers might pay to brainstorm and network with a self-selected community of other discerning news patrons and producers.

Repositioning its paywall as a velvet rope might raise the value of NYT.com enough to justify raising prices.

Yes, this would be a radical revision of the Times and its mission. Surely Sir Harold, hater of class snobbery and champion of a newspaper's duty to be an open forum and spokesman for  non-elites, would abhor the idea of ClubNYT.com. As a former journalist, I don't don't find the idea entirely palatable either.

But as an entrepreneur, I'd say ClubNYT.com's odds of success are better than 50/50.

And those odds are fifty times better than those of NYT's current plan to charge more for its soup while diluting the product. That, with apologies to Sir Harold, seems like a great way to kill a website.

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