Times Select Posted by: Dale Franks
on Monday, September 17, 2007
Remember a couple of years ago, when I looked at the New York Times' "Times Select" program for the web, and I asked the following question?
I know the business models for print and web aren't exactly the same, and the costs are certainly different, but the principles are the same. In the real world, you wouldn't offer paper subscribers the NYT for 50 per copy without the Opinion section, and $2.00 per copy with Opinion included. If you did, you'd rapidly find that you no longer needed to actually print an Opinion section. Indeed, you might find that you no longer needed to print a paper at all.
So, why would you do that to web subscribers?
Apparently, the management at the Timeshas decided that the answer is, "You don't."
The New York Times will stop charging for access to parts of its Web site, effective at midnight tonight.
The move comes two years to the day after The Times began the subscription program, TimesSelect, which has charged $49.95 a year, or $7.95 a month, for online access to the work of its columnists and to the newspaper’s archives. TimesSelect has been free to print subscribers to The Times and to some students and educators.
But wait! there's more!
In addition to opening the entire site to all readers, The Times will also make available its archives from 1987 to the present without charge, as well as those from 1851 to 1922, which are in the public domain. There will be charges for some material from the period 1923 to 1986, and some will be free.
Well that's mighty generous of them. So why the move back to free content. To hear the NYT's people tell it, the whole Times Select deal was a rousing sucess.
The Times said the project had met expectations, drawing 227,000 paying subscribers — out of 787,000 over all — and generating about $10 million a year in revenue.
Well, if so, it looks like the notional numbers I tossed out two years ago look pretty accurate. And, as a result, no matter what their targets were, and whether they met them or not, it was a loser of a strategy. Why? Well, pretty much for the same reasons I outlined in 2006:
“But our projections for growth on that paid subscriber base were low, compared to the growth of online advertising,” said Vivian L. Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of the site, NYTimes.com.
What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to NYTimes.com. These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.
“What wasn’t anticipated was the explosion in how much of our traffic would be generated by Google, by Yahoo and some others,” Ms. Schiller said.
Well, it could've been anticipated by anyone with a working knowledge of the internet. Indeed...it was.
Prior to the Times Select debacle, people would go to the NYT regularly. That was eyes on the page, for which the NYT could charge premium online ad rates. Times Select killed that traffic, and what was left, people who kited in via Google, couldn't see the pages...so they left, killing the ad rates for banners, etc.
Now, the question is whether or not the NYT web site can reclaim those regular readers by exposing their columnists to the public again.
The challenge for any content provider (at least those hoping to make money) is to determine whether an advertising supported model or a subscription supported content model works best.
To take issue with your example, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the NYT charging extra for Opinion content... provided readers consider it valuable enough to pay for. Many a content provider (including yours truly) are making money offering up free or reduced price content with the intent of upgrading readers to paid content... you just have to have content that readers think is worth paying for. The Times seems to have persuaded a bunch of people that it was worth paying for... they just didn’t make as much as they think they can from advertising sales.
So long as the Times is getting lots of advertising dollars from advertisers silly enough to think that their banner ads and the like will provide a return on investment, then it makes sense that the Times would make as much content ’free’ as possible (keep in mind ’free’ is only free in the sense that the reader doesn’t pay dollars to access the site, but they do ’pay’ in that they’’re exposed to advertising) in order to maximize the number of content pages on which advertising can be sold.
However, if the flow of advertising dollars slow down (actually, it should be ’when’, not ’if’, as most advertisers are deluding themselves into thinking they’re getting their money’s worth), then the Times is going to regret not charging for their content. As an aside, since they’ve never been on the cutting edge of anything, the fact that the Times has just thrown in with the advertising model side is perhaps evidence that the infatuation with advertising supported contents is peaking... so sell those Googles and other stocks whose business model is based on online advertising revenues.
My life has been quite nice without hearing from Dowd, Krugman, et al. for the past two years. My guess is that people will continue to ignore them unless they say something monumentally stupid. Which, iirc, was about every other week.
I would take a somewhat more cynical view of their removing what Ed calls the "Firewall of Sanity"... It’s an election year.
Look, the Times condemmed themselves to ever increasing irrelevance when they went to the pay structure as they did. That’s something they can ill afford as the primary house organ for the Democratic party, who is desperate to get any traction they can in the public discourse, and thereby in the 08 election.
As for the comments about ad revenue, yes, for most orgs I’d say that was a valid angle. But if Pinch was realy concerned about this, the lowering ad revenue from his lowered print circ would have had him reacting long before this. My take is revenue is important, but it’s not as big a concern as the political relevance issue, given we’re in the cycle, now.