This may be the year to short the The New York Times (NYSE:NYT).
A sound short is based on irrational exuberance in the prospects or numbers of the target. The short-seller believes that the results are unsustainable, that the buyers are wrong, and makes money in the inevitable fall.
In the case of the Times, the irrational exuberance is its paywall strategy. Bloomberg described that exuberance well this last week and the Columbia Journalism Review has been pounding the table for paywalls. So has the Nieman Journalism Lab.
But paywalls are only a temporary fix.
As Matt Ingram of GigaOm notes, the Times is only maintaining with its paywalls, not prospering. The paywall acts like sandbags against the flood. They keep the floodwaters out but they don't stop the rising water.
In the case of newspapers, this flood is an unsustainable business model. As Clay Shirky noted, in the debate over the Washington Post adding a paywall, sites like Homicide Watch cover every killing in the area, with a staff of two, while the Post newsroom has dozens of reporters but just covers a handful of cases a year.
As Shirky wrote at his own blog last year a newspaper is a bundle, but the nature of the online world is to tear such bundles apart. The easy part of a paywall is getting money from 2% of your audience, he adds. The harder part is replacing 98% of your advertising business.
The Times has made up for its loss of print advertisers by becoming a niche product, getting income from just a small part of its old reader base. To grow it must respond to that niche, focusing only on stories of interest to it, but that leads to its becoming less-and-less of a general interest experience. And if it's not a general interest experience, how can it justify its staff and real estate costs?
This is unsustainable. It's the classic argument for a short. I'll be interested in seeing whether any of the market's leading shorts see that in the coming year.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.