Yesterday The New York Times announced it would end "Times Select," its approximately-two-year-old experiment with charging for premium content. This has been a closely watched test, and one I follow closely because of my role as founder and shareholder in Clickshare Service Corp. Let's look at the situation from a old-world view, express the new view, and then suggest sort of a compromise.
Here are links to some comment by others:
Vin Crosbie: "Paid content isn't dead; just payment for one-to-many content is. The problem is most people in the industry still think in only one-to-many terms, including those pundits who are hailing TimesSelect's demise as the demise of paid content online."
Scott Rosenberg: " . . . [F]or better or worse, charging for news content online is nearly impossible."
Jay Rosen: "The Times has decided it's better off in the bazaar." (http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue3_3/raymond/ )
Jimmy Guterman: "When there is an Internet advertising dip -- however mild, however brief -- what will happen to the publications that will be close to 100-percent dependent on advertising?"
Steve Johnson: "But somewhere along the way, it will become apparent that advertising cannot pay for every single info-bit that's on the Web: The ratio of eyeballs to info-bits, many of which are expensive to make, becomes too small."
Jeff Jarvis: "The relationship is what's important, not the content."
Ken Doctor: "Times Select may not have been the best retention strategy, but retention of a half-million Times subscribers just got a bit harder. There's an inevitability here, well-cheered on the web, and now that it's done, best to make the best of it. "
Mark Potts: "Creating good journalism requires a sophisticated business model, with revenue from multple sources including, in some cases, paid subscriptions."
Staci Kramer: " . . . [T]raffic increases from search-engine optimization (SEO) and the NYT's belief that by opening millions of pages to search engines, that traffic growth will continue and with it, ad revenue."
Dan Gillmor: "On topic after topic, the Times story (or stories) will move near or to the top of the search engine rankings."
The old view:
There are those such as Jay Rosen who believe charging for news-and-opinion type content is competitively impossible on the largely "free-content" web. They see this as a hard reality. I guess they figure if that means journalism as we've known it is unsustainable in a solely web environment, so be it.
There are others -- primarily small papers, single-paper publishers and niche publishers such as The Wall Street Journal -- who regard what they do as empirically valuable and they resist making it available for free.
At The New York Times, the ad folks won the internal battle . . . and I think it is a form of death for journalism as we've known it. The competition for advertising on the web is such that it seems hard to imagine sustainable rates will ever support the amount of original reporting we have had in this nation for the last 50 years. It will take some years for this to become really obvious, and then we'll swing back to premium-content services. By then, the newsrooms of newspapers will be hollowed-out shells unless they are subsidized by things like About.com, Kaplan, other businesses, or philanthropy.
I don't know that there is any other way for The Times to have played this. We are watching an evolution that is really not under any individual's or institution's control. There is one possible scenario that could alter this -- and that is if a system evolves which allows sites to charge premium rates for personalized advertising -- because of superior demographic targetting. This is suggested in the article The Times' carried on its own decision.
The new view:
Jay and other see greater value in the "linked web" -- where search engines and cross links magnify the readership and authority of a source like The Times. This is certainly the promise of the web -- being able to go anywhere for information, largely without restriction, a world in which information is enriched by the ability to deeply cross link.
So where does that leave our thinking:
- Journalism is expensive, and web advertising alone may not sustain it.
- Charging for content puts up walls which destroy the brilliant utility
of the open web.
- Are we therefore destined to have a an open web, and unsustainable
I don't think so. The challenge is to develop an approach which preserves open linking but yet creates a basis to sustain quality content, whether by advertising or direct user support.
Suppose The Times were able to get paid as its users are served demographically-targetted ads from third-party sites? Then it could "monetize" the demographics of its quality-journalism-seeking audience.
Suppose, for example, The Times got a commission when it served up content to its users from other websites? Bottom line: Newspapers have to start behaving like information valets.