November 12, 2005

"I've learned to have some sympathy for those who are staring down the barrel of the Internet."

So writes Joseph Nocera from behind the wall of TimesSelect (subscriber's link). He used to think that those who "can't adapt to disruptive technologies ... probably deserve their fate," but now, seeing what's happening at the NYT, he's not so sure. He recounts the naysaying about TimeSelect and then comes out with this:
SO it was a bit of a surprise, after all the sturm und drang, to see the early results of The Times's online subscription experiment. They're not half bad. In a news release issued Wednesday morning, the company reported that since it began in mid-September, TimesSelect has generated 270,000 subscribers, half of whom already subscribed to the newspaper (and hence get the new service free) and half of whom were plunking down cold, hard cash.

To be sure, that is a far cry from the million-plus people who spend as much as $600 a year to buy the dead-tree version of The Times, and it's not even remotely close to the 20 million-plus "unique visitors" who come to the Times Web site each month. But it's something. Martin Nisenholtz, who is in charge of digital operations for The New York Times Company, told me that the numbers were "at the high end" of expectations.
We're supposed to believe that? Why would they wall off their columnists for so little money? And what's with saying "TimesSelect has generated 270,000 subscribers"? Generated? Half of those people (including me) got it free as subscribers to the paper version.
It is far too early, of course, to predict whether TimesSelect will ultimately succeed. The roughly 135,000 online-only subscribers could represent a new willingness on the part of consumers to pay for newspaper content online - or not. But what I've wound up wondering is whether, even if it is a roaring success, TimesSelect - and other online subscription models that are bound to follow - will be enough to stop the erosion of the economics that underlie newspaper journalism. I'm not terribly sanguine.
Is it really too early? It looks like a dreadful failure to me. In any case, the real problem, Nocero writes, is that, with or without TimesSelect, on line news reading will erode the journalism business. He quotes one analyst: "For every dollar coming out of the dead-tree pocket, only 33 cents is going back into the online pocket."

By the way, the TimesSelect columnists are recording little podcasts, about 3 or 4 minutes per column. I listened to Nocero's. (Boy, did it take a long time to download! I can download one of my own 1-hour podcasts in about the time it took to get those 3+ minutes.) It's not Nocero just reading his column -- in the style of a Slate podcast. It's more like my idea for podcasting, which is to talk spontaneously about what you've been writing. Nocero confides that he's being rather audacious writing about the NYT, and perhaps they will fire him.

I tested the Maureen Dowd podcast though, just now, and it is not Mo musing about the column, it's a broadcasty voice reading Mo's most recent column. David Brooks? Same thing! Tierney? Same! Friedman? What do you think?

Only Nocero gets podcasty -- as I define podcastiness.


knoxgirl said...

"And what's with saying "TimesSelect has generated 270,000 subscribers"? Generated? Half of those people (including me) got it free as subscribers to the paper version."

This is like the power company bragging about how everyone in the city chooses them for all their electricity needs. Kinda sad.

And it's extra-lame that their columnists don't even read their own work for the podcasts!

Rick Lee said...

When Slate began, Michael Kinsley decided to charge for it. His reasoning was that, even though Microsoft was subsidizing the magazine, it would make it a more serious player. People would appreciate it more and take it more seriously if they had to pay for it. Some of the content was always available for free but most of it was behind the wall. I personally subscribed because I was really excited about the idea of a "serious" online magazine way back then and the price was reasonable. After a while, they ran the numbers and realized that the advertising dollars they were losing behind the wall was way more than the money they were getting from subscriptions... so down went the wall. I think that this will prove to be the same for NYT. How can it not be?

Dave said...

No, the New York Times doesn't "get" the internet in the same way you get the internet.

The New York Times is facing many problems for which it does not have an answer. I do not expect to see the same New York Times in five to ten years.

Slocum said...

After a while, they ran the numbers and realized that the advertising dollars they were losing behind the wall was way more than the money they were getting from subscriptions... so down went the wall. I think that this will prove to be the same for NYT. How can it not be?

It was more than that, in an interesting way. People think of subscriptions as 'paying for' the cost of producing, printing and delivering a newspaper or magazine, but that's really not the main point of the subscription. The point is that if somebody has been willing to pay for a newspaper or magazine, that's taken as an indication to an advertiser that the recipient is probably actually going to read the thing. If the subscription were free, on the other hand, advertisers would assume that most recipients would treat the newspaper or magazine like junk mail and toss it.

The web changes that dynamic because a web site actually knows (and can report to advertisers) how many readers saw a given web page with their ad on it. So Slate figured out that subscriptions didn't generate that much money, that they hurt their readership levels, and that subscriptions for web content (unlike for print publications) was not needed as a signal.

They may be slow learners, but I think the NY Times will figure this out, too. Personally, I haven't subscribed to the paper NY Times for years. Now, with 'Times Select' in place, I find that I bother with the free online content much less frequently than I used to.

erp said...

Interesting, but not surprising, priority differences.

It's easy to see what a newspaper thinks its readers value most. For instance, compare how two major newspapers have developed their online editions.

The WSJ online charges for its hard news and content pages, but makes its soft news, style section, editorial and opinion pages available free of charge. The NYT online does the opposite.

It’s hardly surprising that serious people have stopped looking to the Times for information, but read it for their gossip columns, while readers of the WSJ look to its pages for accurate information they can trust, and their excellent editorial and style sections are the icing on the cake.

No matter how good the spin, in the end, it’s the market that decides what survives and what goes down the tubes.

Ann Althouse said...

I'm much less likely to read the columnists I used to read. I'm always looking for bloggable things. Now, it's awkward to blog the columns, so I often just glance at them and think I'd rather be somewhere else, reading something I can engage with. A lot of the most desirable readers are not passive anymore. They read and write. It's very old fashioned of the Times not to want readers like us anymore. I pay for the paper NYT and have for 25 years. Before that, I bought it on the newsstand. Yet the material I've paid for all along has become less valuable to me.

AJ Lynch said...

That's a great line huh.."staring down the barrel of the internet". In business , execs always overplay the strengths of a deal or transaction; hence the statement that Times Select has 270,000 new subscirbers.

Personally, I found I don't miss reading the Times Select Stars and that surprises me a little.

John R Henry said...

Slocum had a comment about advertisers liking to see people paying for subscriptions as an indication of true interest in the magazine. There well may be something to this.

However Slocum and others may not be aware of the fact that there are many big budget magazines that are distributed for free. Specifically, they are called "Controlled circulation". They have excellent production values, glossy paper, many pages (over 100 in many cases) and so on. In short, all the things you would expect to find in a paid sub mag.

They work by only allowing (that's right, "allowing" many won't sell a subscription at any price) targeted subscribers. For example, Food & Drug Packaging Magazine (for which I am a Contributing Writer)is sent only to people working in packaging.

I don't know the stats but there are lots and lots of these mags. I get 9 just in packaging every month. There may even be more, and reaching more readers, than all the paid sub mags.

So yeah, subscribers like "free" mags as well.

John Henry

brylin said...

For about 135,000 paid new subscriptions to TimesSelect, there has been a reduction in readership for these opinionmakers in the range of 90%.

What a deal!

brylin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ann Althouse said...

Brylin: I don't want links to the sites that are violating the NYT's copyright to appear on my blog. I very much appreciate you as a commenter, so please don't be offended that I'm deleting your comment.