Pay to flay – It’s time to make a fresh start


Did you know that some newspapers charge the bereaved to have obituaries of the dearly departed published. It’s a buck, after all.

Some also charge for birth announcements, engagement announcements, and wedding announcements. It’s a few bucks more.

Don’t worry, this is not a prelude to an announcement that this newspaper is about to charge for these services.

The New York Times publishes obituaries for dead people who were celebrated, in large, small, and peculiar ways while they lived, and there’s no charge. Liz Taylor or some guy who rode his unicycle along a wire suspended between two Manhattan buildings across the street from one another will get written about when they die, but most people won’t. If you aren’t the guy who invented the hula hoop, or Gene Kelly, you’ll have to pay to have your final goodbye recorded in the Gray Lady.

This week The New York Times stuck up a pay wall worth maybe $40 million in front of visitors to its web site. It’s a complicated pay wall, mortared with tiers of fees and access formulas designed to make a buck off the website that, despite a brief flirtation a few years ago with a misbegotten pay-as-you-read system called Times Select, has been free for all.

I’m sure there is a pool you can get in on if you want to place a tidy little wager on whether the new NYT scheme to cadge a few dollars from web visitors will be successful. The smart money says it hasn’t a chance. The cheap money, which is nearly everyone who uses the web but doesn’t want to pay to do so, hopes the smart money is right.

The NYT, whose print and online circulations are a couple of million a day, in a country of more than 300 million and a world of more than six billion, is regarded as very influential, although you have to wonder how influential it can be — as opposed, say, to pictures of the former Lindsay Lohan — when it’s read by just .003 percent of the world’s population. It could be that the non-paying pay wall infiltrators might be inspired more by the challenge than by the prose prize on the other side of the wall.

Apparently, those hacking infiltrators, whatever their ambitions, aren’t the sort of readers the NYT wants to attract anyhow. The publisher of The New York Times told an audience the other day that, of course, some people will manage to find ways around paying for the newspaper online, but they will mostly be teenagers and the unemployed.

“Just as if you run down Sixth Avenue right now and you pass a newsstand and grab the paper and keep running,” Arthur Sulzberger explained his premise, “you can actually get the Times free. We have to accept that. Is it going to be easy? No. Is it going to be done by the kind of people who buy the quality news and opinion of the New York Times? We don’t think so. It’ll be mostly high school kids and people out of work. I can’t believe I said that.”

Could it be that he’s a little irritated by all the questions about the new pay wall and whether it will work? Or, as I suspect, perhaps it was a squirt of insecurity. Maybe he’s also a little irritated by his own abiding uncertainty about whether the scoffing critics might just be right.

As Jimmy Breslin might have put it, “Complainant received immediate lacerations of the credibility.”

But, let Mr. Sulzberger et al have a go. Time will tell the story of the paywall.

At the same time, I have decided on my own to build a kind of unusual paywall for the manyheaded who muck around in the Comment columns of Beginning next week, all nutty, boring, nasty, write-about-the-same-thing-all-the-time, complain-about-the-newspaper Commenters will be charged fifty cents a comment, debited instantly to their credit cards.

Oh yes, we know who you are and, with the help of those breathless, out-of-work teens who have already built an illegal on-ramp to the NYT promised land, we’ve been able to secure your credit card information. You’ll have to pay to flay your commenting brethren.