Early next year, The New York Times will unveil its latest online experiment. Subscribers to their website will have a limit on the number of articles and columns they can read for free. Once that limit is reached, they’ll have to pay a yet-to-be-determined fee. It’s called a “First Click’s Free” program. Your initial look at a story is on the house. The next look will cost you.
The last time The Times tried charging its readers for its website content was five years ago. TimesSelect was a controversial subscription program that prevented non-paying customers from seeing the op-eds and delving too deeply into the paper’s archives. (Recent news stories remained easily accessible.) Tom Friedman and Nicholas Kristof were among many who publicly complained about the change but smart bloggers found a way around the system and posted complete columns of those writers and others on their sites for free.
Two years after it began, TimesSelect was discontinued and peace was restored in our time. Now The Times is hoping this First Click Free deal will be more user friendly and profitable. We shall see.
In the meantime, let’s go back to August and September 2007. What follows are two previously published postings I wrote for Fading To Black, the website devoted to documenting the depressing decline of the news media. First up is a brief August 7 story regarding The New York Post’s initial report about The Times internally planning to end TimesSelect. After that is a September 18 follow-up that comments on the official announcement.
One last thing about that follow-up post. It originally ended with a link to a Joe Strupp commentary embedded in the last word of the line, “Read the story here.”. Unfortunately, if you click that link on the original FTB piece today, it redirects you to the Editor & Publisher home page, Strupp’s former employer. (You’ll find him these days over at Media Matters For America.) I’ve tried to find a cached copy or even an alternate link but the piece is long gone. So, I’ve removed the dead link and that last line but left in the mention of his original article. All the other links still work, thankfully.
The New York Post is reporting that The New York Times’ TimesSelect service is about to become more widely accessible. After two years of charging readers a monthly or annual fee for reading Op-Ed columnists like Tom Friedman and David Brooks, and to peruse its vast archives, the much criticized experiment is about to be discontinued. It will become a free service.
The Post claims that subscriptions are down and Times executives, “[a]fter much internal debate”, have agreed to drop the subscription charge. An official announcement is forthcoming, a source told the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid.
The timing of when TimesSelect will shut down hinges on resolving software issues associated with making the switch to a free service, the source said.
Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis would only say in an e-mailed statement, “We continue to evaluate the best approach for NYTimes.com.”
The decision, which also walled off access to archives and other content, was controversial almost from the start, with some of the paper’s own columnists complaining that it limited their Web readership.
Staci D. Kramer of Forbes.com has her own take on the story, including Catherine Mathis’ complete email statement, which you can read here.
It’s official. As of midnight tonight, The New York Times will abandon its TimesSelect pay service for its website. Chalk one up for The New York Post who originally broke the story in early August.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
From the start, the idea was a bad one. Allowing website subscribers, like myself, to only view selected articles and editorials but denying them the opportunity to read most of the opinion columns was ridiculous and nonsensical. Why hide your best-known columnists behind a pay wall, a number of whom weren’t happy with this change anyway?
In the end, there wasn’t much exclusivity with the new content, aside from some videos. A quick search on Technorati for the commentary pieces you couldn’t read on NYTimes.com for free would lead you to a whole slew of blogs who would post them on their own sites in their entirety, defeating the whole purpose of the TimesSelect concept.
Meanwhile, Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher asks a very good question: “is paid online newspapering dead?”.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, November 2, 2010