TimesSelect: Big Revenue Play or Dangerous Move?

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By: Steve Outing

NYTimes.com debuts a major initiative on Monday: TimesSelect, a paid-subscription service that grants access to selected premium Web content and services. This is a big deal, for the New York Times, and for the newspaper industry.

Now, up front let me say that I like the overall thrust of this initiative — but I’m skeptical of one major component, putting the paper’s immensely popular and well-read Op-Ed columnists behind the paid wall. After talking to some of the key players at the Times and some industry observers, though, I’m now a bit more willing to believe it might work. But I’m not yet quite ready to bet on that.

TimesSelect represents an existing concept in online news publishing that I call a hybrid model. Most of the NYTimes.com site will remain open for free to anyone willing to register; TimesSelect does not shut down the site to free access, and non-paying site visitors won’t notice that much difference from pre-Sept. 19 (just a few things are taken away).

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What TimesSelect does is introduce a suite of premium services that requires a $49.95 annual subscription ($39.95 if you sign up by the 18th) to access. Print subscribers get TimesSelect free as part of their regular service. To my mind, there are two things that will convince people to fork out the money: access to the Times article archive back to 1981 (offering a maximum of 100 articles per month), and access to the Op-Ed columnists.

Other premium offerings are nice, but not nice enough alone to get people to open up their wallets (in my view): columnists’ work from Sports, Business, New York/Region and the International Herald Tribune; personalized e-mail news alerts; a “virtual file drawer” to save articles; and early access to Sunday Times articles.

No Choice But To Go This Route

To hear New York Times executives talk about TimesSelect, this initiative is critical to the survival of Times journalism. Martin Nisenholtz, president of New York Times Digital, says the catalyst for the shift in strategy is to build a significant online revenue stream on top of advertising. For the Times to continue to be able to afford to do quality journalism in the future, a way must be found to make the digital operation more profitable — reflecting the inevitable move in the coming years away from print and toward online. As more readers — especially younger people — shift their reading habits to the Internet and move away from print, the digital side must bear more of the weight in paying the costs of the Times’ journalism.

Nisenholtz is convinced that TimesSelect has a good shot at achieving that goal (though not alone; he says other online program innovations are under development, mostly involving Web site advertising). He points out that NYTimes.com has offered a number of piecemeal premium services in the past, but in aggregate they only brought in a couple million dollars a year. The ambition is to have a much larger revenue stream.

He’s looking for significant numbers. 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.

(Anecdotally, I’m noticing that among my professional colleagues, there’s grumbling but resignation that it’s time to pay up for the Times full content; several people e-mailed me after learning that I was writing this column to say that they’d paid for a TimesSelect subscription.)

Access to the Times article archive could be a significant draw. Currently, accessing archived articles cost $3.95 apiece, a price that was raised by $1 a few months ago (separate from the decision to include archive access in TimesSelect). Nisenholtz told me that the higher price reflects an effort to balance with the higher prices that the Times charges to business-database customers accessing Times archives; go too low and business users may switch to the cheaper consumer Web service. I think that price is absurdly high now, but at $3.95 for a single article, that could provide incentive for people who use the Times archives to sign up for TimesSelect and save money over the longer run.

Op-Ed Columnists: The Crown Jewels

The other twin pillar of TimesSelect is, of course, the Op-Ed columnists. The likes of Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, David Brooks, et al are immensely popular online, as well as in print, so Times executives believe that their loyal readers will pay up rather than lose the connection with these columnists.

One factor that Nisenholtz thinks will encourage people to pay to keep reading the Op-Ed crew is the nation 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 NYTimes.com 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. His hypothesis is that this loyal audience base can be persuaded to spend money on the NYT brand on the Web, just as it long has in print.

Of course, there are risks — foremost that the columnists’ readership and reach are severely diminished by going behind the subscription wall. Times editorial page editor Gail Collins says that everyone involved in this decision understands that there are trade-offs and losses in store. There will be fewer mentions and links in the blogosphere; news aggregators won’t point their users to the columnists.

For many of the columnists — used to a huge worldwide audience for their work — “this will be a hard shift,” says Collins. Nevertheless, she claims that they’ve been supportive of the decision. Even Thomas Friedman, who writes on international affairs and has an especially strong reader base in the Middle East, acknowledged to Collins that “we have to do this.” “No one has argued that we shouldn’t do this,” she says.

Increasing the workload

An interesting approach to making the idea of paying for the Op-Ed columnists (and the paper’s other columnists) palatable is that what’s offered will be more than what the columnists currently produce. With the exception of Nicholas Kristof, who maintains a “Kristof Responds” reader-interaction area on the Web site and often produces multimedia supplements (with the help of NYT multimedia journalist Naka Nathaniel) to his text columns, most of the columnists deal strictly in text.

Their workload is about to increase.

Collins says that each columnist is being asked to offer something more on the Web site. They won’t necessarily copy Kristof’s approach, but they will take on his cross-media ethic. Ergo, paying TimesSelect subscribers will get more for their money.

For instance, Friedman will have a Web site feature called “Talking World Affairs With Tom Friedman,” where readers will ask questions and he’ll answer some of them publicly. Paul Krugman, an economist by training, will have a Web site area where he’ll offer up charts and graphs and other supporting information to bolster or supplement his traditional column. John Tierney will have an online “book club,” where he suggests that people read a particular book and then leads a discussion. Frank Rich will have an “Everybody’s a Critic” online feature with thoughts and reader interaction on popular culture. Kristof is even planning a “Win a Trip With Nick” contest for college students, where someone will accompany the globetrotting columnist on an upcoming assignment.

Collins says there’s no set template for the columnists, and they’re free to find their own way. Will this be more work for them? Yes, the editorial page editor acknowledges, it’s a new part of their function for the Times.

The same thing goes for other columnists, and for editorial writers. The latter will be doing online features called “Talking Points,” where they’ll have more room to explore topics they’re writing about in traditional editorials, presenting a wider vision than is possible to present in a few hundred words of text.

Other columnists will devise their own TimesSelect Web site specials. TimesSelect product manager Eliot Pierce says each newspaper columnist will devise multimedia and/or interactive features that fit their personalities and expertise. For example, New York/metro columnist Dan Barry is having a Flash map made to link to all his stories. Business columnist Gretchen Morgenson is creating an in-depth Web examination of executive pay packages, enabling online readers to explore the information and data in ways not possible in print but that are ideal for the Web and Flash presentation. Four sports columnists are planning to do regular (every week or two) roundtables.

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.

If multimedia supplements and interactive features aren’t enough, columnists also will have podcasts — of their regular columns (but read by someone else), as well as special features such as interviews with them.

Reactions

So, is all this so worth $49.95 a year that hundreds of thousands of people will pay up? Even if successful at gaining many paying online subscribers, is it worth hiding the paper’s star columnists in the long run? Could a case be made for monetizing the huge readership that they’d get by continuing to be offered online for free?

Rich Gordon, chair of the newspapers and new media program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, says, “From what I know, I think (including the Op-Ed columnists in TimesSelect is) a mistake. While the columnists are one of the biggest incentives some folks would have to sign up for a paid content tier, surely they are also — thanks to blog links — one of the biggest traffic drivers the paper has, and therefore probably (one of the most) monetizable sections of the site.”

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.

And then there’s an intriguing ethical angle presented by Steve Yelvington, an online pioneer and executive for Morris Communications’ digital division: “When you directly incent writers based on their ability to attract paying customers to the Web site, what are the side effects on the journalism process? Does it introduce personal ethical challenges that writers previously have been able to avoid?”

As for me, writing this column has softened my view of the TimesSelect model. When I first heard about the planned program earlier this summer when it was announced, I flinched at the thought of the Times’s star Op-Ed columnists being hidden from all but paying subscribers. (They will not be available anywhere else on the Web; the Times News Service will syndicate the columns to print publications, but not allow free-access online publication.)

Then I looked at my own behavior. Without those columnists as part of the package, I doubt I’d buy into the service. Held for ransom, as it were, I’ll begrudgingly pay for TimesSelect. Nisenholtz and team are counting on a lot more people thinking that way.

Can this model apply to other newspapers and their Web sites? I’ve long felt that the “hybrid” online publishing model is a good one: Keep most of the news Web site free access, but build a suite of premium services worth paying for. I think for the most part, TimesSelect is a model worth copying.

Of course, the trick is figuring out what you can charge for. Frankly, I think the Times is a special case — and its Op-Ed columnists are special. Perhaps the Times can get away with keeping Thomas Friedman and colleagues behind a pay wall. I wouldn’t recommend this at most newspapers.

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