New York Times They Are A-Changin'

There was a surprising email from The New York Times this morning: the newspaper was discontinuing TimesSelect, the paid-access section of their website which features op-ed commentary by powerful voices like Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman. Lured by the success of the subscription-based online model of The Wall Street Journal, the Times had decided to create a gated community within their portal exactly two years ago, but with mixed returns (disclaimer: as a student, I have enjoyed free access to TimesSelect).

The Grey Lady's decision to erect this subscription-firewall proved controversial among the web-community: critics saw this move as limiting access to the newspaper's most influential analysts and opinionators, but charitable subscribers accepted it as a fair contribution to the columnists' pay-packet. While the Times may not have been overly concerned about the former camp's insistence on the right to "free-dom" (many young bloggers of the Internet age may not have seen a newspaper outside their front-door), the damage done to the hitherto unhindered reach of the TimesSelect commentators was considerable: they quickly dropped off from the daily list of top emailed articles, and Friedman even went on record criticising the model, "It pains me enormously because it's cut me off from a lot of people, especially because I have a lot of people reading me overseas, like in India." Moreover, the newspaper may not have anticipated the growth and popularity of news aggregators like Google News, which often linked to TimesSelect articles that were not accessible to the casual reader.

At the same time, the aura surrounding the famous "All the News That's Fit to Print" masthead had somewhat diminished, as a result of two high-profile public scandals involving their staff. Jayson Blair, a reporter at the newspaper's national desk, was forced to resign after it was discovered that he had been fabricating and plagiarising elements of his news stories on a regular basis. More critically, the controversy surrounding senior reporter Judith Miller's drumbeat for war, at the concealed behest of the government, tarnished the reputation of the Times as an independent and trustworthy voice in world affairs.

Ultimately, as with anything else in business, the TimesSelect euthanasia was a financial decision. The meagre revenue earned from subscription could not offset the revenue lost from potential advertising, and Management admitted that the growth projection of their paid subscriber base (numbering 227,000 versus over a million for The Wall Street Journal) paled in comparison to the growth of online advertising. TimesSelect's failed experiment also raises questions about the market-value of elite commentators in the brave new blogosphere, where opinions are a dime a dozen. With Rupert Murdoch, the new proprietor of the Dow Jones Company, reportedly in favour of making online access to the Journal free-of-cost, readers may end up being forced to forego one evil for another: the subscription model for bombardment by advertisements.

No American newspaper will print anything contrary to its own interests.

George Bernard Shaw

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