Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Virtual Gated Community

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


Anne Lavoie said...

The best part of NYT, by far, are the comments. Not just for the varied thoughts and opinions, but the way they are expressed. So many of them, such as yours and Marie's, crack me up with laughter or make me yell 'Yes! Yes! Yes!'.

I definitely will not be paying, especially now that I know about Mr. Slime, I mean Mr. Slim. I will cut down on who and what I choose to read though. For opinions, I will probably stick with just Bob Herbert's and maybe Nick Kristof's pieces, now that Frank Rich is gone, and skip Maureen and Gail and Charles, etc.

When I exceed 20 articles, I will do a search using the title of their article which I will get from my free view, although they are limiting us to 5/day through searches or links from other sites. I think I can work with that.

The best plan would probably be to boycott them entirely for awhile and see what happens. Maybe they will dump their plan like they did last time they tried this a few years ago.

I wouldn't miss NYT news so much, especially in the summer, but the comments are my daily dish of dessert. It sure won't be the same though if only bland professionals (such as Winning Progressive for example), are all that are left to read.


Draft Spitzer said...

What IS the story with "Winning Progessive"? Does he get paid to write those apologies for the DNC?

Karen Garcia said...

Winning Progressive is a Harvard-trained lawyer. His website is registered in the name of his wife. No evidence of sock-puppetry has yet been found, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. If it smells like a stinky sock, etc.

Anonymous said...

The Linclon division of the Ford motor Co. Sent me an e-mail offering to pay for the balance 2011 for the NYT with no strings. So there may be a way to get on ford's list. I have never bought a Ford ether. Obviously I signed up.


Draft Spitzer said...


What are you trying to infer? The black socks are a Roger Stone-created myth, as documented by Alex Gibney in "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer"!

As for Harvard-trained lawyers... no. Don't get me started. Mr. President is all the Harvard-trained lawyer I can take.

I visited the WP site today. (Although I stand by my claim that "Winning Progressive" is neither.) Under "How To Help" it offers a link to "Contact the Democratic National Committee." Enough said.

I still consider myself a Democrat. I think it was a mistake for liberal Democrats to have started calling themselves "progressives" instead of remaining stubbornly within the Democratic Party where they could have held the party to its traditional position in the FDR-era center (now erroneously referred to as socialism.)

There's value in the Democratic Party "brand", value that comes from the fact that the party once actually stood for something triumphant.... something that is now erroneously called "progressive." The "progressive" label has just allowed the goalposts to be moved drastically to the right. But it was a Democratic President who gave us the Civil Rights Act, and a Democratic President who gave us the WPA, and a Democratic President who helped coordinate the fight against the Axis - a fight we, ahem, won.

I don't know if you heard post-Oscar-win Charles Ferguson interviewed at The Commonwealth Club of California. You can podcast the video, or get the audio through iTunes. I finally listened to it last night. It's worth hearing, in large part for the talking points he provides against the many cheap defenses of the banking sector. I was glad to learn he's working on a book that expands on his film, "Inside Job." He briefly made some vague allusion to the necessity of a third party.

Maybe the 15 million unemployed Krugman just referenced will, of necessity, become that third party. And pull the Democratic Party back from the rightwing side of the spectrum.

turnipseed said...

I did the Lincoln thing as well. They offered "the balance of 2011" and didn't even ask me to register for "special offers"!

Janet Camp

(Can anyone tell me how to post here using something besides the Google Account. The other choices all seem to want a URL. I'm very low tech, obviously.)

turnipseed said...

Forgot to say thanks for the scoop on Senor Slim. I had read about him before, but didn't know (or forgot about) his "interest" in the Times. What an appalling man. How do people like him live with themselves while so many of their people are so desperate? I will not live long enough to ever figure out that glitch of humankind.

Draft said...

Karen, what happened to my post from a half hour ago?

Karen Garcia said...

Dear Draft,

The system read your last post as spam for some reason. I have restored it, above.

Karen Garcia said...


There are some glitches in the comments function - some people have been unable to post at all. I believe it is a Google issue. If anyone is having trouble, email me your comments and I will cut and paste them here.

Denis Neville said...

Fifteen bucks is a heck of a lot if one is on a fixed income or low income or have no income. Especially so nowadays what with fuel and food prices spirally upward, not to mention everything else - health insurance (if one has it) and medications (if one can afford them), utility and internet connection costs, et al. Not to mention the great unknown – what further sacrifices will be required of us by the deficit peacocks.

But the NY Times deciders, not to mention El Senor, have absolutely no concept of what it is like living on the edge. For many elderly people (and their numbers are growing), who because of their frail health are quite isolated, sites like the NY Times (better than Faux news) are a connection to the outside world.

I also agree that a five dollar fee a month would be more affordable to many readers and generate many more subscribers and more profits for the Times. But that’s unlikely to happen because in the minds of the NY Times deciders their proposed fees are probably their equivalent of a five dollar fee a month. So many will continued to be further marginalized in our society.

Anne Lavoie said...

It's actually $195/year because they are charging $15 every 4 weeks, not by the month. It is confusing because the allotment of 20 free articles is by the calendar month I believe.


DreamsAmelia said...

Anyone who wants to read as many articles on the Times for free only has to use Firefox with the "No-Script" and "Ad-Block Plus" plug-ins...As Karen noted, I am sure the Times _will_count your clicks once you are logged in, so readership may not decline with this paywall, but commenting and recommending surely will. Before reading Karen's piece, I was somewhat resigned to paying this price because it didn't seem as steep compared to all the other ever-rising expenses--one single ride on the NYC subway is $2...
But Karen once again provides investigative journalism rivaling the Times content and reminds us that we will be ironically contributing directly to the very oligarchs we so love to rail against.
Just as Hosni Mubarak seemed to make a tactical mistake in shutting down the internet, propelling those planning to watch the revolution from Facebook into the streets, so, too, perhaps this will turn into a fortuitous tactical error by the Times--"The Forgotton Millions" could indeed materialize in Washington as Marie and the comment board sang on Krugman's piece. The sad part is, we are country of 300 million, and it is but handful of thousands who read and comment on the Times site...but, all the Arab uprisings started with mere handfuls...A few rich politicians, if they had any sense, would kick in debt forgiveness for the Times to keep the paywall down to keep the disenfranchised complacent as "armchair revolutionaries"---But, I guess they figure Murdoch's empire is keeping most of us divided against each other, so meaningful resistance will never emerge.
Most days, that unfortunately seems so. Hooray for Karen's blog to provide real hope and good cheer...

Draft Spitzer said...

Hi Karen,I don't know if you read comment #241 today in response to Krug's column. Some guy, I think writing from Brazil (can't remember) pointing out that it would be far more effective for us to be adding comments to right-leaning blogs rather than the collective group hug we've been engaged in at the Times.
If we don't have the stomach to engage the other side from our armchair position, then we probably deserve to go down.
We'll always have the option to come back to "our" blogs to re-strategize, vent, etc.
But we're avoiding the battlefield, as it were.

Karen Garcia said...

There is a link to Elizabeth Warren's consumer protection agency blog at the bottom of this page. Comments to her latest post are now closed, but it appears that the Krugman poster you cite is correct - there are a few right wing trolls doing their astroturfer best to cast aspersions on her and her agency via their "comments". I will be posting at length on sock puppetry in the very near future. In the meantime... what are your suggestions for some conservative sites where we might add our two cents? I have never commented anywhere except the NYT, because other sites seem so overwhelmed with unmoderated nonsense.

Draft Spitzer said...

Karen, I don't blame you for avoiding the unmoderated nonsense. A friend of mine, a retired professor from down South, has made it his mission to refute the nonsense comments from RW trolls (and the people they've hoodwinked) in papers back home. He chose small local papers, interestingly.
He's liberal, but was once a conservative, and it helps that he has a thick skin. It's also in his favor that he "gets" where they're coming from.
I think even "centrist" sites would be a good place to start. Time, Newsweek. I'd avoid The Atlantic - already covered and heavily populated by libertarians, who are beyond ideological.
Maybe the other thing we could do is round up people on the more rational blogs (like the Times comments page) and start getting the word out that we need to take the fight into their court.
Is the battle for the independents? That's where we should be.

menckenist said...

OK, I'll play contrarian here. I've largely given up commenting on mainstream news sites. I spent a lot of time engaging in debate and came to realize that all of it means nothing. No one's minds are changed, the editors don't care, the politicians don't care, etc, The comments sections seem to exist to foster endlessly unproductive debates and clicks for advertisers. The only site I very occasionally comment on is Glenn Greenwald's column in Salon becase he does read the comments and will comment back. He also uses tips to write further articles.

I wouldn't pay a plugged nickel to read the Times as, to me, it's another establishment outlet (and I'd be putting money in Mr. Slim's pocket). So I ask in all sincerity - why do you bother commenting? What difference do you think it makes?

Anne Lavoie said...

Write On! about posting in less 'friendly' sites. I read and post comments in city newspapers of several states that I have lived in, including Arizona, Montana, and New Hampshire.

Even when the issue is a local one, there are opportunities to point out or link those issues to broader, national issues. I think we help each other connect the dots, and we need all political persuasions to see what is going on in our country. I believe our words/comments ARE helping because I have seen the evolution of people's comments.

The most frighteningly disturbing thing I have noticed from these newspapers in just the past few months is how fast and furious the state legislators/city council members (Chamber of Commerce and their lobbyists actually) are changing the laws and implementing tax cuts for the wealthy, special loan deals for businesses, privatization moves, public/private partnerships (corporate welfare), financial incentives for businesses, etc.

If I hadn't been reading those local newspapers I wouldn't have believed what the corporations and their lackeys are doing everywhere across the country. It is certainly not limited to just Washington, D.C., nor to just governors and state legislators.

The taxpayers of all stripes are starting to get the picture that we have been had. They are getting outraged. I would encourage you all to get engaged politically in more local newspapers. You get more trash talkers, but few or no sock puppets (look forward to your post on that, Karen), but it's worth it.


Marina said...

Thanks for writing about this. I'm genuinely baffled by the Times' pay wall decision. They should have charged only for hard news and the Business section, and it should have been affordable and straightforward (i.e. one price for any and all access). The soft news should have remained free, to make sure advertisers keep seeing lots of high click numbers (it's expensive to do real reporting, but cheap to write about style, real estate, etc.)

As it is, there's a strong incentive to stop paying for the print edition, and readers both over 60 and under 30 are likely to leave in droves (plus hitting that 20 article/blog entry limit is going to really make people mad--just what you want, angry readers--not the types most likely to open their wallets/PayPal accounts).

It's weird watching a paper self-immolate, after making lousy business decisions for years (remember when they bought their snazzy new building for the big bucks a few years ago? Not to mention, the Boston Globe, if I remember correctly). And, yes, comments will be coming increasingly from a smaller, less representative pool of people. And people worldwide won't want to have to pay for the whole paper when all they want is to read Krugman and his commentators (and you and Marie Burns).

Sad. Then again, these are the people that hired William Kristol...

Anonymous said...

Good idea, that's why I comment on Left wing blogs, there is no sense in preaching to the choir! You should try the Fox News comments, I can't stand to read them most of the time, but if you want to preach and don't mind ducking a "few" stones you go girl!


Anonymous said...


I don't know how the the various profile signatures work either, so I use the Anonymous choice. Karen, Marie, et al have convinced me that Anonymous isn't "polite" and sometimes lacks courage. So I close my Anonymous comment with my signature. Easy and everybody's happy.

Haley Simon