Sunday, October 09, 2005

Select This ...

Ah, newspapers, trying to stay relevant in the digital age. When a story breaks, we can get up-to-the-minute coverage online. We don't need to wait until tomorrow's edition. And a whole generation is growing up and getting their news this way.

So what's a money-grubbing news organization to do?

Many years ago, insisting newspapers weren't becoming the dinosaurs everyone was suggesting, Bill Kurtis said to me, "You can't take your laptop on the L." He was right - then. But even that might be changing. If San Fran goes wi-fi, can the rest of us be far behind?

In the meantime, news businesses - and they're businesses, to be sure; the bottom line rules the day - are on a never-ending quest for revenue streams. Readers don't pay for newspapers. Advertisers pay for newspapers. Joe Average plunking down his 50 cents at the newsstand isn't paying anyone's salary. It's the advertiser inside that pays $40,000 for some prime newsprint real estate that keeps the lights on.

But newspapers know that it's not enough to simply shovel the print edition onto the Web. Big stories are available all over the place, so if you want to court readers, you have to give them something extra. (Of course, this is true of the print editions, too.) So what does the New York Times decide to do?

Start charging people to read its columnists.

The spin for TimesSelect tries to trump up the archive acceess - 100 free articles a month (and when's the last time you looked up - much less bought - a newspaper article online?) and advance content (and when's the last time you had nothing to do on a Saturday and thought, "I sure wish I could start reading the New York Times Magazine right this minute"?) - but at the end of the day, you know and I know and the New York Times knows that you and I know that the reason people will plunk down $50 a year (if they're going to plunk down $50 a year) is to read Krugman and Rich and Dowd and Herbert and all the voices that pepper the OpEd pages that we savor.

Trouble is, when you've been giving away the goods, it's hard to suddenly start expecting people to pay for them. Like a free weekly on the street: You grab it because it's free. Maybe you read it, maybe you don't; either way, it didn't cost you anything. If, though, suddenly, that free weekly cost a buck, would you still grab it every week? Or would you reassess if it really provided that much value in your life? Maybe you'd only read a common copy at a coffeehouse.

I know several people who are disgruntled with the Times and its experiment. (I call it an "experiment" because I don't think it will last.) But there are work-arounds.

A blogger has started a site that links to free versions of the columnists, syndicated versions that appear on other newspaper sites. He has a conscience and won't accept cut-and-paste copies for publication on his blog. Or conscience-shmonscience, maybe he has an aversion to being sued by huge media companies. Either way, through his site, you can't read every columnist every day.

What you can read, however, are other people's comments, and find how they're getting access to the content for free, and here's one of their good ideas:

groups.google.com

Go to the New York Times' site, find out the title of the columnist's piece of the day, type it into Google Groups and voila!, you'll probably find several sources.

Will this last forever? Probably not. Will the Times' legal eagles track down the perps and send cease-and-desist letters? Probably. But in the meantime, you can get your fix.

In the event that any of this rubs you the wrong way, if you're sitting there wondering if this is the thinking-man's Napster, I don't think it is.

I don't steal, and I don't think of this as stealing. The writers I know (and that includes me) write because they want people to read what they've written. With TimesSelect, the paper has slashed the readership of its marquee writers. If what I've read online is true (and I know everything is suspect in cyberspace), the columnists themselves aren't happy about TimesSelect. Not only have they lost a big chunk of readers, but now they're all expected to create extra doo-dads for the TimesSelect scene, the paper's way of saying, "Look! See! We *have* added value! Yes, we're charging you for something you used to get for free, but now you can read a columnist's blog!"

Call me crazy, but isn't a column pretty much a blog to begin with? If someone was paying me to write this, I could call myself a columnist.

groups.google.com - try it.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Q! said...

Beth, it seems foolish for NYT to go down this road, especially when the model already exists, WSJ.com. The consensus among netizens is that the model is broken.

http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,66697,00.html

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Pat said...

I find it interesting that the Times opted to curtain off their opinion pieces when opinion can be had online for free through the infinite number of blogs. Sure, Friedman and Krugman are far better writers than the average blogger, but the best bloggers are arguably just as good as they are. I predict Friedman will have a blog within two years.

If the Times is going to charge for something, stick to the archives and start to market your product based on the huge number of eyeballs it draws to the site everyday. This, however, was a mistake, and I say that as someone with a huge stake in the success of online news. After all, it's my freakin' career!

3:24 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Hey, Pat, good to see you here. I'm a big fan of your site.

3:27 PM  

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