The New York Times charges for the wrong thing

News web sites have to figure out a way to make money. As long as they are free and access to them in unlimited (even when they require registration), the ways for making money – or creating revenue streams, in the jargon of the business world, are limited. Advertising will cover some of the costs, but as yet, advertising is not yet turning news web sites into profit machines.

That’s why the step the New York Times took this past week is a significant one.

The Times instituted Times Select, a plan that puts the paper’s may op-ed columnists, such as Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, David Brooks and others, behind a subscription wall. The subscription price is $49.95, or about a dollar a week. In addition, Times Select subscribers get unfettered access to the New York Times archives, the International Herald Tribune and several other premium products of the Times.

Most of the content of the New York Times webs site will remain open, however (except for the required registration). That means all of the news, magazine, book review, theater reviews, business and sports content (except for a few columnists) will still be available without charge.

Much debate is now taking place in online journalism circles about the wisdom of the Times’ move.

Undoubtedly, the Times will make some significant money with Times Select. If only 100,000 people sign up for the service, that will be an extra $5 million in the coffers of the Times. And, of course, the Times is hope for many more than that to subscribe. So, the money involved is not chump change.

But what about the cost? Is the Times hurting itself in the long run by closing off its columnists to the vigorous online discussion of current events? What about charging for what was once free? Steve Outing, columnist for Editor and Publisher and editor of Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits, interviewed Martin Nisenholtz, president of New York Times Digital, for his column last week. Here’s part of what he wrote:

One factor that (Martin) Nisenholtz (president of New York Times Digial) 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.

(Steve Outing, Editor and Publisher: TimesSelect: Big Revenue Play or Dangerous Move? )

Bold and risky as the Times’ move, it is not as bold and risky as it could be. The Times’ columnists – as popular as they are with some readers – are not the news organization’s “crown jewels,” as they have been described.

The most valuable product of the New York Times is news, not opinion.

News costs a lot of money, time and manpower to produce. For more than a century, the New York Times has been one of the leading news organizations in the world. Its underlying foundation is its vast network of reporters and its reputation for presenting news and information.

That is what it should be charging readers for. It should give away its opinion section and even its archives. But it should tell visitors that the news on its web site is what is worth money.

Super-blogger Glenn Reynolds made that point on a radio interview when he said:

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.

(This quotes comes from a discussion about Times Select on Jay Rosen’s blog, PressThink.)

Jim Stovall (posted Sept. 25, 2005)

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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