Pundits for money (and news for free)

Is the New York Times undercutting its influence by charging people who want to read its popular columnists online?

Published May 18, 2005 2:00AM (EDT)

You can't stand David Brooks but you read his column anyway, twice a week. Paul Krugman's anti-Bush rants ring so true for you that you ditch your work in the morning to e-mail them to your friends. Then there's Thomas Friedman, the world's favorite Middle East explainer; Bob Herbert, well-intentioned, if sometimes boring; and Maureen Dowd, indecipherable. Yet such is the power of the New York Times' Op-Ed page that even though some of its columnists may drive you into a rage that you can barely articulate, you still care deeply about what they have to say. So you read them all the time.

But will readers care about the Times' columnists if they've got to pay for the punditry? The paper is betting that they will. On Monday, the New York Times Co. announced that beginning in September, Times columns will no longer be available free on the Web. News stories, however, will remain free to readers. The paper will charge $49.95 per year for TimesSelect, a service that gives readers online access to the work of a few select writers -- columnists on the Op-Ed page as well as in other sections of the paper, including Business, Sports, and Metro. TimesSelect subscribers will also receive unlimited access to the Times' archives (most of the articles fall into the archives after one week online) and to the paper's NewsTracker service.

The Times' move is, in some ways, a trailblazing idea. The Times is not the first major newspaper to charge for access to its articles online -- the Wall Street Journal instituted an online subscription service in the early days of the Web -- but its model does represent a novel split between free and paid content. Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations, explained that the Times wants to have its cake and eat it too. The paper's Web site is one of the most popular news destinations online and it has proved tremendously attractive to online advertisers; in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, the Times Co.'s Internet ad revenue grew by almost 30 percent. That is the cake Nisenholtz wants to keep.

But the company also recognizes that its revenues are heavily dependent on ads and that the online advertising market can be volatile. "We need to have a stable revenue base," said Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times Co. chairman and the paper's publisher. "Online ad growth has been spectacular and long may it continue to be spectacular, but once it becomes mature it becomes cyclical, and you'll have valleys as well as peaks. You need the stability of another revenue source." Media analysts have speculated that the Times' decision may have something to do with its declining print circulation, but Nisenholtz said that the move was not really in response to what's happening to the physical newspaper. Times executives said they don't expect TimesSelect to drive people to subscribing to the paper -- which costs around $600 a year -- though they noted that TimesSelect will be free for all print subscribers.

To hear the Times execs tell it, the decision to offer a subscription makes good business sense. Nisenholtz stressed that the company had researched its decision extensively through reader surveys and in conversations with other industry leaders, and that the company created various models to map out the kind of drop in traffic it might see once some of its content goes behind the subscription gate. But there's another aspect to the paper's success that's harder to measure -- its impact on the rest of the media -- and perhaps the most pressing question facing the Times is whether, by selling its content rather than giving it away, it is removing itself from the vibrant conversation online.

Already, some pundits online are saying as much. Blogger Andrew Sullivan greeted the Times' news with this unhappy headline: "The NYT Withdraws From the Blogosphere." "The great gift that the New York Times gives the world is free access to its articles, opinion-journalists, and stories," Sullivan wrote. But "by sectioning off their op-ed columnists and best writers, they are cutting them off from the life-blood of today's political debate: the free blogosphere. Inevitably, fewer people will link to them; fewer will read them; their influence will wane faster than it has already. The blog is already becoming a rival to the dated op-ed column format as a means of communicating opinion journalism. My bet is that the NYT's retrogressive move will only [hasten] the decline of op-ed columnists' influence."

It wasn't only righty bloggers who greeted the Times' news with disdain. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the proprietor of the popular left-wing blog Daily Kos, said that come September, he'll stop linking to the Times Op-Ed pages. "I think this is the best way they can become irrelevant," said Moulitsas. "If my readers can't read it, why would I link to it? The key to blogging is that readers can look at the source material and make up their own minds." Moulitsas is a fan of Krugman's columns, but he said that he would not personally pay for the subscription service. "I don't think it's worth $50," he said. "There's way too much content out there for me to pay for any of it."

Sulzberger said he understood that bloggers wouldn't be happy with the move but added that he's not worried that Times columnists will have a hard time getting themselves heard when they're not available for free online. As a print newspaper with millions of readers, and with many influential readers, the Times is not in danger of becoming irrelevant, he said. Times columnists "are going to continue to set the agenda." Sulzberger said that he'd spoken to many of the columnists about the move and "overwhelmingly what I heard from the Op-Ed columnists was, 'Yeah, but we've got to do this.'"

Times columnist Frank Rich agreed. "If you believe, as I do, that basically there is going to come a time when people are not going to read print newspapers anymore, someone has to figure out a way to get income for news gathering," Rich told Salon. "Because who's going to pay for that bureau in Iraq?" Rich said that judging from the kind of e-mail he gets in response to his columns, he guesses that there will be some people -- people who don't regularly read the Times -- who will no longer read his work once it's not free. But many of his readers, he said, are Times readers -- they subscribe to the print paper, or they are interested enough in the paper to pay $50 for it online.

"I think that every newspaper is feeling economic pressures, and so this is an attempt by the Times to exert some leadership, in some ways to stick a toe into this," Rich said. "It might solve some of the problems" -- of declining print circulation, which afflicts generally all major newspapers in the country -- "without being draconian about it."

Media observers say the success of the Times plan will depend on its implementation. Will its price prove either too high or too low? Will the Times, like the Journal, make some of its content free to bloggers especially so that it may have an influence on the online discussion? And will the paper be too vigilant in cracking down on bloggers who copy and paste their content. (Nisenholtz conceded that the paper is not vigilant now, but he said it will be in the future.) And, perhaps crucially, will other papers follow the Times' lead?

Gordon Crovitz, the digital operations head at Dow Jones, which publishes the Wall Street Journal, said that he thinks the Times move will prove pivotal in one key area: it will convince readers that you've got to pay for quality. "I think it's terrific for the industry," Crovitz said. "We're seeing a greater understanding among news consumers that the best news and information is not available for free."

Salon itself has some experience in charging readers. When this site's Premium service was introduced in 2001, it applied only to a few stories; now, all stories are pushed behind a subscription gate, although non-subscribers can read all Salon articles for free if they view an advertisement first. Joan Walsh, Salon's editor in chief, called the model a success. "It's trained a small set of politically savvy readers that you can't expect everything to be free."

After all, it costs a lot of money to produce the news. "Damn it, just sending a reporter from the airport to Baghdad is expensive," Sulzberger said. "It's measured in the thousands of dollars. And this war's only a small part of what we cover."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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