The New York Times on March 28 introduced its much-anticipated metered paywall, and media watchers will be closely following what impacts that has for online and in-print journalism. A big unknown still is effects the move might have on visitors wanting access to online science and climate coverage.

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Clicking for the news … but with what implications?

A long-awaited and closely watched New York Times metered-access paywall for digital content, put into place March 28, features tiered subscription access allowing online readers to view 20 free articles a month before being asked to pay between $15 and $35 per month, depending on reading devices — computer, smartphone, or tablet. Home subscribers to the printed edition will continue to get unlimited Web access.

The move to charge for access to online content raises some concerns and some unknowns about the newspaper of record’s ability to communicate science news to a broad readership.

An analysis of the paywall’s potential effects on readers of climate and science news first begs a brief review of the current status of science news in so-called “mainstream news” organizations such as metropolitan daily newspapers.

Science journalism as a whole has suffered precipitous declines in the past decade. In 1989, 95 U.S. newspapers published dedicated science sections. Fewer than a third still do. And, in 2010 media coverage of climate change dropped to levels not seen since 2005. Putting up a digital pay requirement could lead to further declines in the consumption of science and climate news.

Starting from ‘an already bad position’ …

“If you start from an already bad position, the paywall is not a good situation for science journalism in general,” Robert W. McChesney, Gutgsell Endowed Professor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and host of Media Matters, said in a telephone interview. “The most important political issues today have a science component, and popular understanding of science is important so that people can understand public policy implications. And climate change is exhibit A plus in that area.”

Former New York Times science reporter Andrew Revkin, of the DotEarth blog and Pace University, says he has two main concerns about the paywall. “How does this affect public school access (not just for the blog but for, say, middle or high school teachers who require students to read Science Times, etc)?,” Revkin wrote in an e-mail to The Yale Forum. “Could end up with a fresh version of the digital divide.”

Revkin’s other concern involves communication with readers around the world. “Will this impede access from developing countries that are just getting onto the Web in a big way and whose voices I value highly on the blog? I don’t have answers to those questions,” he wrote.

Revenues from the digital subscriptions of course will join current revenues from print and online advertising (such as they are) in helping to finance responsible journalism. But neither McChesney nor Revkin says he believes these added funds can sustain and support the scale of reporting that for decades has taken New York Times readers to all corners of the world. Rather, the Times‘ strategic move may only cushion an inevitable blow that top quality coverage in most metropolitan dailies is experiencing.

Paywalls: ‘Rear Guard’ when ‘going down a cliff’?

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