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Charging for Columnists: Notes and Comment on the Launch of TimesSelect

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"Despite all that has happened, I still think that The New York Times has a stature and a position of journalistic authority that is greater than any news organization in the world. Could that be destroyed? I believe that it could be."-- Alex S. Jones, former reporter, New York Times, co-author of The Trust, a history of the Sulzberger family, in Business Week, January 17, 2005.

I agree with Jones: it could be. And I have some thoughts on the launch of TimesSelect, the new premium content package from the New York Times, which throws the columnists behind a pay wall, and opens the archives to Select subscribers.

"We have been tested many times in our 154-year history as we are being tested now." That's Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and CEO Janet Robinson in Tuesday's note to staff about a new round of layoffs at New York Times Company (500 jobs company-wide.) The launch of TimesSelect is a big part of "being tested." On the line is the company's wisdom about itself, the Web and the place of its flagship newspaper in the new information order.

It will be easy enough to know whether it's working. How many people sign up and pay the $49.99? It will be harder to know if there's damage to the Times brand caused by the new pay walls. "He's looking for significant numbers," writes Editor & Publisher's Steve Outing about Martin Nisenholtz, president of New York Times Digital. "The goal won't be met with TimesSelect subscription numbers in the tens of thousands, Nisenholtz says; it needs to be in the hundreds of thousands in the early years, and even more over the long term." There's your scorecard.

I think they might reach their goals, at least at first. (For some users the archive alone will be worth the price.) Outing explains the bet:

One factor that Nisenholtz thinks will encourage people to pay to keep reading the Op-Ed crew is the notion of the "Times loyalist" -- perhaps 1.5 million to 2 million readers who are devoted to the New York Times brand, and spend significantly more time reading than they do other news sites. With them, he claims, their willingness to fork over "the equivalent to buying a few martinis" for an annual subscription could be expected.

As I said, they're being tested on this logic, and what it might overlook even where it makes sense. The National Review's Jonah Goldberg thinks it plays narrowly to the (liberal) Times base. If liberals are more willing to buy premium access, and conservatives less, doesn't that make TimesSelect an ideological purifier?

Outing: "Steve Klein, an online journalism professor at George Mason University, says one of his students raised an excellent point during a class discussion this week about TimesSelect: 'Even if the Times picked up most of its existing online readers, how are they going to grow a new generation of online Op-Ed readers if they keep the columnists behind a pay firewall?' Good question."

Yes, it is. My own questions start with this sentence in the corporate side's press release, describing TimesSelect as "a new product offering subscribers exclusive online access to the distinctive voices of the Op-Ed, Business, Metro and Sports columnists of The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune (IHT)."

The phrase "exclusive online accesss" advertises two different goods. The first good is the work of the Times columnists themselves. The proposition that some will pay for that is hard to prove until you try, but it's simple to understand. The second good being advertised is exclusivity. You, the lucky TimesSelect subscriber, have access to these voices. Others do not. The value proposition there is muddled. If we prize up-to-date information about petroleum markets, we might value it more--and pay a premium--if the news is exclusively available to paying customers; but do we value Nicholas D. Kristof's column more if he's an "exclusive?"

We don't. In fact, it's probably the reverse. If everyone is reading a columnist, that makes the columnist more of a must have. If "everyone" isn't, less of a must. "Exclusive online access" attacks the perception of ubiquity that is part and parcel of a great columnist's power. In his prime Walter Lippmann was called "the name that opened every door." Nick Kristof's brand of human rights journalism, which depends on the mobilization of outrage, is simply less potent if it can't reach widely around the world, and pass by every door.

Staci Karmer of interviewed Nisenholtz just before the big launch:

Despite the darkest musings of the blogosphere about dissolving the Op-Ed columnists' relevancy by removing them from the free market, Nisenholtz insists, "Tom Friedman's ideas, Maureen Dowd's ideas are going to be as vibrant in my view, as important the day after as the day before." At another point, he says, "I hope there are enough people who matter in the world who are going to continue to read the (22) columnists." [He knows] the site is going to take an immediate traffic hit. "We think that within six months we're going to be right back to where we were are now," says Nisenholtz.

We'll see. I'm not aware that Maureen Dowd has any ideas, beyond comparing politics to high school. She has a sensibility, and readers may go to her for that. If you want me to pay for your author's sensibility, I might, if you've signed up Isaiah Berlin.

It's not often discussed, but the free Web edition has transformed the work of foreign correspondents, and of columnists like Kristof and Thomas L. Friedman who write from abroad. Say you're reporting from Cairo and based there. Pre-Web, only a handful of people in Egypt would ever read your story; they would get it three weeks later in an envelope mailed from the U.S. Most of those you interviewed--your sources--would never see the results of your reporting. Although they might be keen to know what the American press said about them, the material was out of reach.

Now, because of the Web edition, everyone in government, business and academic life has read your stories-- and plenty of taxis drivers and schoolteachers, too. From Cairo to Ohio, readers bring to the transaction an awareness of all the other readers doing the same thing. The Times Company's press release does not seem to realize that "exclusive" opinions are not more valuable than "widely-circulated" ones-- and it's possible they will count for less.

The other phrase that spoke to me from the official-ese was "distinctive voices." As in "the distinctive voices of the Op-Ed, Business, Metro and Sports columnists." But how distinct are these voices? Does Bob Herbert write about forgotten Americans in a distinctly different voice, or in a NAACP-big-city-outraged-liberal-Democrat one? If I were Martin Nisenholtz, one of my worries would be over-estimating the marketplace value, and misstating the unique selling proposition of a Herbert, a Maureen Dowd, a David Brooks. When I read Dave Anderson in sports he sounds like every other sports columnist, even when he's on target.

Big-traffic bloggers Glenn Reynolds and Hugh Hewitt were discussing this on Hewett's radio show this week. The question was whether flood-the-zone, real time reportage by weblog was the way to go for newspapers faced with a big news event like an approaching storm.

Reynolds: The New York Times thinks it's going to make money selling op-eds, but hard news reporting is the killer ap for news media organizations. If they want to come up with opinion, they're competing with guys like me, and we can kick Paul Krugman's butt any day. If they do hard news gathering, and they actually report what's happening, and they report it straight and fast, they can go toe to toe with blogs pretty darn well.

I assure you, they are chuckling in newsrooms about just possibly being able to compete "toe to toe" with bloggers in reporting a big moving story. Maybe they shouldn't be chuckling, but they are. I think Reynolds was basically right about the columnists and kicking Krugman's butt. (See Business Week Online: "Is Paul Krugman Worth $49.95?") If I draft a PressThink post on a topic in the news, and it doesn't offer a lot more than a typical newspaper op-ed, I won't click "publish." (Example: compare this column on Katrina and the press to this post.)

That's part of my unique selling proposition: if you're in the market, you get more if you stop by PressThink. Similarly, Josh Marshall is far more valuable to me than Krugman and Herbert combined. They have been slow to make best use of the Web. He's been Web-savvy and smart. Mickey Kaus of Kausfiles: "like reading a lefty-liberal-economist? Can't pay for Krugman? Try ... Brad De Long!" Kaus has an amusing riff on an alternative "monetizing" scheme, called TimesDelete:

...for $19.95 a month, say, TimesDelete's premium subscribers could vote on one op-ed columnist to take an extended vacation. If more people picked Krugman rather than Brooks, Krugman would get his salary plus a bonus on the condition that he maintain a meaningful silence for several weeks. The race would be tight every month, I should imagine, with Republicans and Democrats trying to outvote each other. But you can't play if you don't pay!

Steve Lovelady of CJR Daily said he doesn't get it, either. From a comment thread at PressThink:

Opinionated commentary is a dime a dozen. The blogosphere is crawling with it, of every stripe. As well as rants, screeds, and moonbat manifestos of all sorts. That's not a USP (unique selling point) for the big news engines. Their USP is the depth and breadth of their reporting. So why give away your USP for FREE while you're CHARGING for the stuff -- opinions -- that the world already has too much of?

The entire field of opinion writing has been transformed by the Web, and it's not just the bloggers doing their thing. Take a look at this page, and imagine the Times columnists have gone missing. Is that a problem for the page, or more of a problem for the Times? Then there's the blogger override of the pay wall. No one knows how often this will happen. But check out this site, Never Pay Retail, which is nothing but links to where you can find the Times Columnists for free on the Web.

The Times realized that the value of the columnists had to be enhanced. So they pressed them to do more for subscribers. Business Week called it "the big draw" in the $49.95 package. (I disagree: the archive dating back to 1981--soon back to 1851--is the big draw.) Here's the added value they forsee: more interaction and multi-media features involving the columnists.

... columnists will engage in extracurricular activities with subscribers. John Tierney will oversee a book club and related discussions. Paul Krugman will host online classes pertaining to international finance, under the rubric "Money Talks." The sports columnists will gather for a twice-monthly chat. In "Everyone's a Critic," Frank Rich will post online observations and invite readers to debate sundry cultural topics, and Thomas L. Friedman will respond to reader mail.

Does it seem to you they're having trouble with the value proposition? It seems so to me. The Times columnists aren't experts or oracles. Thomas Friedman isn't an authority on globalization; he's a artful rhetorician, building stories around facts. Much of his value derives from the perception that "everyone" is reading him. Eliot Pierce, the product manager for TimesSelect, made note of certain advantages in fewer, better readers. (Via E & P.)

Pierce says the TimesSelect model gives him hope that the interaction that columnists will promote through these initiatives will be of a high quality. High-level conversation isn't impossible with a mass free audience, he says, but the smaller pool of people paying for this likely will be more engaged; there likely will be less potential for flames and nastiness.

There's some truth in that. Still, none of the columnists seem inclined to the "readers know more than I do" perspective that ex-columnist Dan Gillmor developed by blogging. That would be an exciting departure. At Media Bistro, David Hirschman interviewed Diane McNulty, Group Director of Community Affairs and Media Relations, who made this statement:

TimesSelect subscribers can create or view hyperlinks to the full text of the columns. Non-subscribers will see a brief summary of the column. We expect to have an affiliate program for bloggers in place by the end of the year that will offer bloggers financial incentives to link to TimesSelect content.

Hmmm. Financial incentives to link to the Times... Say, if I link to David Brooks today because the Times offers me money to do so, isn't that like payola? I e-mailed McNulty for an explanation, and what I got was a reversal. Apparently she misspoke in the interview. There are no incentives to link to Times content:

Jay, Thanks for asking about that.

There has been some confusion over how the affiliate program we are developing for TimesSelect will work. To clarify, we expect to have such an affiliate program in place by the end of the year. It will provide incentives for bloggers and others who generate, through advertising links on their sites, new subscriptions to TimesSelect. These links will be clearly marked as advertisements and appear as either text links or banner ads. It is not The Times's intention to have bloggers use RSS feeds of editorial content as a way to promote TimesSelect.

Okay, thanks: so no payola. (Staci Kramer has more.) Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan wrote this on Tuesday of debut week: "Memo to Arthur Sulzberger: I would have linked to John Tierney's excellent NYT op-ed today on how Wal-Mart is better able to deal with natural disasters than FEMA. But only Times Select readers can read the link. So I won't. Nyah nyah." But the more telling comment was his announcement of a deal he struck with the Washington Post:

Here's an interesting contrast: next Tuesday, this blog is going to be streamed to the Washington Post's online opinion section. WaPo, unlike the NYT, is trying to reach out to bloggers and increase the interaction between old and new media. They approached me; and I'm always up for an experiment. WaPo will carry my lede item at any given time, and a couple of teaser headlines for the rest. I have no idea what to expect; and neither do they. But it's one of the first real cooperative ventures between an independent blog and the MSM.

Sullivan adds: "Ironic, isn't it, that the day the NYT shuts its opinion pages off from free access, the WP actually opens its doors to independent bloggers?"

Doc Searls: "This whole thing looks like an ugly political compromise between warring factions inside the paper." That's my sense too, based on what I have heard. If one faction wanted to go the Wall Street Journal's pay route, and another wanted to remain free like the Post, then TimesSelect is not a hypothesis for how to succeed on the Web, but a mid-point between competing strategies. That alone is reason to worry.
Jay Rosen is on the journalism faculty at New York University, where he has taught since 1986. This first appeared at his weblog, PressThink.