If you are a New York Times subscriber, registered user or commenter, the richest man on the planet owns a piece of you. And if you plan on forking over between $185 and $300 a year in order to scale the digital edition's upcoming paywall, you’ll be contributing even more to the vast fortune of one Carlos Slim.
|The Richest Man in the Universe|
The well-fed Slim is not a country singer. He is a Mexican businessman who not only has retained his number one spot on the Forbes list of billionaires, he widened the gap considerably last year, accumulating an additional $20.5 billion to bring his total fortune to $74 billion. He has far surpassed both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in accumulated wealth. But unlike these two richest Americans, he has not given away huge chunks of his fortune. According to Forbes, his monopolistic ownership of Latin America’s biggest wireless company accounts for two-thirds of his wealth.
Slim is the single largest shareholder of the Times after the controlling Sulzberger family. When the paper suffered near-catastrophic advertising losses after the financial meltdown of 2009, Slim came to the rescue with a $250 million loan at a near-usurious interest rate of 14 percent.
The Times announced last year that it planned to get out from under the burdensome debt three years early by paying Slim back in 2012… soon after it starts implementing its controversial new paywall.
At the time of the loan, the NY Post had a field day. “Robber Baron Saves the Times!” the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid gloated. “He has expanded his riches in a poor country, where the minimum wage is 50 cents an hour, by charging excessively high telephone rates at his near-monopoly.”
Slate said the Slim /Times venture has transformed him from robber baron into robber patron. The billionaire, who has been accused of being the main cause of so many illegal immigrants crossing into the United States to escape his iron monopolistic fist, has repeatedly denied wanting to buy The Times outright.
His current stake in the newspaper, including his initial investment, stock options and loan interest, is estimated at about 17 percent. Tellingly, and curiously, he has no voting rights on the board or input into editorial content (or so we are told).
The Times currently earns an estimated $3 million annually in digital ad revenue from its online edition. So, combined with the compound interest on his loan, Slim’s share of that pie alone is probably close to half a million.... Chump change for somebody like Slim.
The comments sections of Times articles also contain digital advertising. Since those of us who write frequently on these boards contribute to the paper’s bottom line by generating user clicks in the tens of thousands, it is reasonable to assume that we, individually, contribute our own small share to the bank account of Senor Slim. Hmm… how could I be making his life more pleasant? It’s fun to imagine that I paid for a spoonful of caviar at his latest yacht party, or maybe donated an hour’s wages for one of the army of private security guards he employs to keep his imposing hide safe in his lawless, impoverished country. And it’ll get even better once we start paying at least $15 a month to continue the privilege of writing for free in the comments sections. It’s a double dipping win-win for Carlos, and we’ll be helping to get the Sulzbergers out of hock early too. The least they could do is thank us. (Don’t hold your breath).
|Maintaining Him in the Lifestyle to Which He is Accustomed|
Details of the paywall and the pricing rationale remain confusing. Theoretically, we will get 20 free articles a month before we are asked to pony up. However, readers can sidestep the paywall by linking to Times articles from any number of other sites. And how the Times will track its frequent users is also a subject of debate. It is fairly easy to bypass paywalls by clearing your internet browser of cookies every so often, so the sites have no record of your visits. But since The Times requires user registration to recommend articles and post comments, it is unknown if the newspaper will track users through log-in information.
My biggest gripe is not about the subscription plan itself (newspaper reporters and editors have to eat too), but about the amount being charged. Fifteen bucks is a lot if you’re on a fixed income or low income or no income. Several readers and commenters have written to say they will not be able to afford the rates. I agree with others who suggest that a fee of $5 a month would not only be more affordable to readers, but would probably also generate many more subscribers and more profits for the Times… and Senor Robber Baron-Patron.
Perhaps most important to me is that the pricey new paywall will effectively stifle valuable input from the increasing numbers of indigent people in our country. Reader comments will increasingly reflect the views of the more affluent or at least the financially solvent among us. And how about readers from overseas who may have even fewer assets? (I am thinking of the many readers from Egypt who contributed during the recent revolution). Personally, I would like to continue hearing from real people who are actually going through a foreclosure, have been out of work for two years and counting, and who lie awake at night wondering how they’re going to pay their next electric bill or forestall bankruptcy because of illness. The Commentariat, as my friend Marie Burns the Constant Weader calls it, is a valuable part of journalism and should be represented by people from all walks of life. The paywall will be an effective Wall of Silence, a closed, gated community to shut out people who are already shut out enough as it is.Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano recently announced plans to tear down the border fence between Mexico and the USA. We have enough barriers, enough walls. We don’t need another one. Me oyos, Senor Slim?
|Fences Don't Always Make Good Neighbors|