Business People Like ‘NYT’ Plan to Charge on Web; Bloggers Don’t

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By: Jesse Oxfeld

Reaction to yesterday’s news that The New York Times will begin charging for online access to Op-Ed columns and other material seems to depend on whether the commentator is a business analyst or a political one.

Today’s Times quotes Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s explanation for the move. “The advertising growth on the Web has been just spectacular the last few years,” Sulzberger said. “But like any business, it’s going to mature over time, and when that happens, it will flatten and then you’ll get into the normal cycles just like we do it on print. And at that point you’re really going to need to have another revenue model.”

Several business analysts cited in coverage of the announcement agreed with Sulzberger’s assessment.

“On the same day that CNN officially admits it can make more money by flinging open the gates to video on CNN.com and making its content more valuable to advertisers, the New York Times opts to put some of its most visible content behind gates — and, in the process, narrow its audience considerably,” wrote Executive Editor Staci D. Kramer on paidContent.org. “Despite the drama, the upshot is the same for both — and for the Wall Street Journal, among others, which has been looking for ways to reach outside the gates: hybrid models offer the most protection from cyclical revenues like advertising — and the greatest potential for return.”

In The Boston Globe, consultant Peter M. Zollman noted that the Times is perhaps uniquely positioned to make this plan work. “Maureen Dowd and Tom Freidman are premium content,” he told the Times Co.-owned paper. “You don’t find those types of columnists at other newspapers.”

At Dow Jones, whose Wall Street Journal has long charged for access to its online content, digital operations chief Gordon Grovitz was happy to see the Times moving, even just partially, to the paid-content camp. “I think it’s terrific for the industry,” he told Salon.com. “We’re seeing a greater understanding among news consumers that the best news and information is not available for free.”

“All newspapers are looking for new advertising revenue and The New York Times realizes they have high-quality content and are looking at other ways to capitalize on it,” Bear, Stearns managing director Alexia S. Quadrani told the Times. “The key is to that you want to maximize the dollars you get on the Internet without alienating the people.”

But while business analysts applauded the news, those concerned with the Times’ journalism and its role in political debates are, at best, more cautious in their assessments.

“More papers are looking at the approach The New York Times is taking — keeping most of their content free but cherry-picking some content for a subscriptions service,” acknowledged Steve Outing, an E&P columnist and expert on online news, in the Globe. But, he added, “[t]hese days there are thousands of bloggers and news aggregators talking about the issues these columnists write about. If you put them behind a firewall, they might disappear from those discussions.”

Certainly two prominent bloggers feel that way.

Markos Moulitsas Z?niga, who runs the liberal blog Daily Kos, told Salon that he’ll stop linking to Times Op-Eds once the new policy goes into effect. “I think this is the best way they can become irrelevant,” he said. “If my readers can’t read it, why would I link to it? The key to blogging is that readers can look at the source material and make up their own minds.”

And conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan used the headline, “The NYT Withdraws From the Blogosphere,” Salon reported. “The great gift that the New York Times gives the world is free access to its articles, opinion-journalists, and stories,” Sullivan wrote on his blog. “[B]y sectioning off their op-ed columnists and best writers, they are cutting them off from the life-blood of today’s political debate: the free blogosphere. Inevitably, fewer people will link to them; fewer will read them; their influence will wane faster than it has already.”

Times columnists, for their part, seem at least OK with the move.

“The capitalist in me applauds any effort to make money from these columns,” John Tierney told the Times. “The columnist in me would rather not lose any readers.”

And Frank Rich was downright enthusiastic. “If you believe, as I do, that basically there is going to come a time when people are not going to read print newspapers anymore, someone has to figure out a way to get income for news gathering,” Rich told Salon. “Because who’s going to pay for that bureau in Iraq?”

But, then again, Slate blogger Mickey Kaus pointed out that the business rationale might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

“Sure, Times subscribers will get the online content for free,” he wrote. “Does that make the $50 price smarter, or stupider? How many people who don’t care enough about the Times to subscribe to it will pay $50 annually for the op-eds?”

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