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New York Times Content Eases Toward Paid Subscription
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Posted On May 23, 2005
How long can newspapers risk cannibalizing print subscription revenues for the wonders of Web traffic? On the other hand, how long would new Web advertising revenue grow—or even persist —if newspaper content became hidden from the open Web? Therein lies the eternal struggle. Sometime this September, probably the nation’s foremost brand name in news content—The New York Times (aka NYTimes.com)—will find out as it launches TimesSelect, a $49.95 per year subscription service. Once in place, only TimesSelect subscribers will have daily access to the copy from 22 prominent columnists from The Times and the International Herald Tribune (IHT). Even more interesting for many information professionals, however, TimesSelect subscribers will also have unfettered access to 25 years of New York Times’ archived articles. Comparing that $49.95 annual subscription fee with the standard $2.95-per-article fee charged by services such as Factiva or ProQuest or the $1.50-per-article fee often charged by other newspaper archives, this would mean that after the first 17 (or 34) articles used in a year, TimesSelect would open up access to The New York Times’ archives.

According to Toby Usnik, director of public relations at the New York Times Company, the “vast majority” of news, features, and multimedia content on NYTimes.com will remain open on the Web and free to registered users. Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations and the founding leader of NYTimes.com, stated, “TimesSelect combines the insights and ideas of distinctive voices from The Times and IHT with seamless access to our archives in an unprecedented way and at a terrific price point. At the same time, by keeping the majority of the site free, we will continue to scale the business through strong advertising growth.”

The 22 columnists now offered as “Special Voices” include a number from the Op-Ed, Business, Sports, and Metro sections. Their names often appear at the top of The Times’ “most e-mailed articles” lists. The columnists are David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, Bob Herbert, Nicholas Kristof, Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, John Tierney, Dave Anderson, Peter Applebome, Harvey Araton, Dan Barry, Clyde Haberman, Gretchen Morgenson, Joe Nocera, Floyd Norris, Joyce Purnick, William Rhoden, Selena Roberts, George Vescey, Roger Cohen, and John Vinocur. In an article published by The Times on TimesSelect, two columnists covered by the new program worried that they might lose readers or even get blamed if their reader appeal was not enough of a draw for TimesSelect to succeed.

Bloggers commenting on the development pointed out that, these days, blogs often compete as suppliers of Op-Ed commentary. Withdrawing this material from the open Web could make popular commentators invisible. However, The Times is planning on working out RSS feed options that bloggers may exploit to reach TimesSelect content, although readers would have to enroll in TimesSelect to access the content. Why would bloggers engage in such reader-teases? Rumors have it that The Times may provide a revenue source to bloggers in return for TimesSelect sign-ups.

More exclusive content for TimesSelect subscribers includes some unique multimedia features, such as audio and photo essays, video, and podcasts. Advance delivery of articles from the Real Estate, New York Times Magazine, Travel, and Sunday Arts comes to subscribers in the “Ahead of The Times” feature. Usnik indicated that the company may add some online-only content for TimesSelect subscribers in the future, but it was too early to say. In any case, readers of NYTimes.com need not fear that The Times will put all its efforts into subscriber content, according to Usnik. “We will continue to invest in our free site. For example, we have just revised our Business page and our Technology section magazines.”

TimesSelect subscribers will also receive a special software service to help them handle Times content. TimesFile software will help readers tag and organize articles from The Times. The TimesNewstracker, already available for $29.95, will become another benefit for TimesSelect subscribers, one that e-mails alerts on news developments in their fields of interest to readers.

The TimesPast access to back archives of New York Times content will initially cover full text back to 1980, according to Usnik. In time, the company plans to phase in access all the way back to 1851, although it does not yet know how, or whether, pricing for the historical material may change. NYTimes.com users will continue to have access to news archives for 7 days after publication.

Home-delivery subscribers will receive TimesSelect access at no additional charge. Marketing plans for notifying home subscribers have not been set yet. When I asked Usnik whether the company was worried that introducing home subscribers to digital access might speed up cannibalization, he indicated he was not concerned. “There is already an 18 percent duplication between print subscribers and digital users now. We see print and online as a matter of user preference.” The NYTimes.com Web site has 1.7 million daily users while the print newspaper circulation runs around 1.14 million.

The launch of TimesSelect will not mean the beginning of charging for content on The New York Times site. It already charges $34.95 a year ($5.95 a month) for access to daily and archived crossword puzzles. (Interesting that the perceived comparative value of 25 years of New York Times journalistic effort, not to mention the ongoing contributions of nationally renowned columnists, amounts to only $15 less than 365 crossword puzzles.) Usnik said that TimesSelect will not incorporate access to the puzzles.

The launch of TimesSelect could seriously affect the current article archive pricing from which The Times Co. reportedly garners as much as $1 million dollars a year. Access to the full archive currently extends back to 1851 and costs $2.95 per article. Archived content dating from 1996 forward has optional, discounted, multipack pricing—four articles for $7.95 (33 percent off), 10 articles for $15.95 (46 percent off), or 25 articles for $25.95 (65 percent off).  ProQuest supplies the digital PDF files of historical articles from its Historical Newspaper collection. ProQuest executives were unavailable for comment on what effect TimesSelect might have on their arrangement with The New York Times.

The announcement of the new service identified three business objectives set by The Times Co. upon launching the digital service in the mid-1990s: profitability, scale, and revenue diversification. The profitability goal for its digital properties was met in 2001, and, according to the announcement, the 2005 acquisition of About, Inc. (aka about.com) increased the scale. This leaves TimesSelect as an effort to diversify the revenue base.

Controversy over business models continues to roil the world of news content. The Los Angeles Times recently withdrew fee-based access to online entertainment coverage. Web advertising revenue currently accounts for some 2 to 3 percent of newspaper revenues, but is also the fastest growing revenue source. The Times Company’s decision to charge for content followed a long study period.

Compared to The Wall Street Journal, TimesSelect’s pricing seems generous. Dow Jones’ pricing for WSJ.com has made it the only national paper with a successful policy of charging for all its online content. WSJ.com users pay $79 a year. Unlike the TimesSelect access at no extra charge to all home-delivery subscribers, Wall Street Journal print subscribers must pay $39 for access to WSJ.com. Nor does The Journal’s archive offer stretch further than 30 days. For any serious archive work, WSJ.com’s readers end up in Factiva’s Publication Library paying $2.95 per article. And the archive for The Wall Street Journal dates back only to the 1980s, not the 1880s.

Dow Jones has no corresponding relationship with ProQuest’s Historical Newspaper collections as does The New York Times. On the other hand, the Factiva Publications Library carries content from more than 9,000 sources, including The New York Times, and the WSJ.com site carries other journals besides the newspaper, e.g., Barron’s, CareerJournal, MarketWatch, etc. And, as Gary Price has pointed out, businesspersons can deduct WSJ.com access from their taxes as a business expense.

Diane Thieke, Factiva’s director of global public relations, saluted the new TimesSelect policy as confirming what Dow Jones and Factiva have always held: “that good quality content has value. It’s what we’ve been saying all along.”


Barbara Quint is senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

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