Demise of TimesSelect Deals Blow to Pay-for-News and Alters Access to Archives
Posted On September 24, 2007
"All the News That’s Fit to Print" becomes "All the News That’s Fit to Give Away" as The New York Times discontinues its TimesSelect subscription program. Two years ago the newspaper inaugurated a program that designated selected content, e.g., op-ed pieces, from its Times on the Web site (www.nytimes.com) for subscribers only. (For background, read "New York Times Content Eases Toward Paid Subscription," May 23, 2005, http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=16200.) Now ad revenue will support the free delivery of all Times content. Predictions already circulate that the failure of such a prominent brand to succeed at paid access should free up content from other providers. Of equal or greater interest to many librarians, however, is the free access to The New York Times archives all the way back to 1851, with the major exception of 1923 to 1986. Already librarian lists buzz with questions about future payments to third-party vendors that carry The New York Times backfiles.
As of Sept. 18, 2007, the TimesSelect subscription program ceased. Subscribers who had paid $49.95 a year (or $7.95 a month) for access to columnists and archives received a prorated refund. Access to archives back to 1987, as well as from 1851 through 1922, became available free to any user. The 1923 through 1986 archives are searchable for free but cost $3.95 per item or $15.95 for access to any 10 articles downloaded within a 30-day period. Under the former TimesSelect program, subscribers had the right to access any archives, including the now premium ones, for up to 100 articles a year as part of their subscription. That no longer exists. According to Vivian Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com, the Times "continues the process of converting a lot of old documents into HTML."
Schiller also made it very clear that home delivery subscribers will continue to access almost all that NYTimes.com has to offer at no extra charge. That includes not only the premium archives, but even the crossword puzzles, etc. The only remaining services that users of NYTimes.com must pay for are the daily crossword puzzles ($39.95 a year), The New York Times Digest (an eight-page daily PDF news summary for $360 a year), and the Times Reader (a downloadable, multifeatured issue of the paper for $169 a year). Customizable research and storage features like News Tracker and Times File, developed for TimesSelect, will be available for free.
Why the switch? It wasn’t because TimesSelect had failed to meet its market goals, according to Schiller. The number of subscribers was growing steadily. The total readership was 787,400, of which 227,000 were paying subscribers with the rest encompassing college students with free access (89,200) and home delivery subscribers to the print edition who chose to add TimesSelect at no extra charge (471,200). The service was garnering $10 million annually in subscription fees.
However, Schiller said, "over the last two years, search has become so much more powerful in finding content and our SEO (search engine optimization) improved so dramatically when we acquired About.com. We put SEO on our content and increased the audience for NYTimes.com 133 percent. That’s gigantic. We saw that happening and, in the second year of TimesSelect, we looked at the numbers and considered what would happen if we unleashed 5 million free archive pieces plus all the work of 23 op-ed and news columnists. It gave us a formula for growing dramatically, as did the change in the expansion of online ad revenue. The environment has changed. We can make money either way, but this way is bigger. We have two goals—one, to open our journalism to as many people as possible, second, to make enough money to continue to do that journalism. Opening our content makes meeting both goals possible." The opening of content also allows blogs, social networks, and other online sources to link to NYTimes.com articles and draw Web users to the site.
For the next few weeks, users reaching for the newly opened areas of NYTimes.com will face a full-screen ad from American Express, the first sponsor for the Opinion and Archives section "formerly behind the pay wall." However, as usage for that content continues to grow, the Times expects to see more advertisers sign on. Denise Warren, senior vice president and chief advertising officer of the New York Times Media Group, stated, "As demonstrated by the commitment of American Express, advertisers see the enormous value in making our site open and free to everyone. With the removal of the pay wall, the audience potential at NYTimes.com, already the No. 1 newspaper Web site in the United States, is vast. Advertisers on the site can expect to see an unprecedented number of Times readers interacting with their brands."
Reactions to the news that the New York Times, undoubtedly one of the best known and most highly regarded brands on or off the Web, was abandoning a pay-for-use model immediately led to widespread discussion of the viability of such a model in today’s and tomorrow’s online environment. The debate continues, but a general consensus seemed to be emerging that mass media content, such as online newspapers, was moving toward advertiser sponsorship. Rumors were rife that TheWall Street Journal’s established (11-year-old) online subscription service, considered quite successful with estimated revenues of $50 million annually from its 983,000 subscribers, might be discontinued when the new owner, Rupert Murdoch, takes over. Murdoch has indicated his support for an ad model and referred to the decision as "on the front burner." The Journal already has an experiment under way that allows users coming in from Google News to see one article.
Those Lovely, Pesky Archives
Back in the mists of memory, The New York Times archives had been a real moneymaker for online database aggregators like LexisNexis, Factiva, and Dialog and the jewel in the crown of ProQuest’s Historical News Archives. Those days would seem to have come to a halt—at least for searches of The New York Times alone. For decades, LexisNexis was the only carrier of the Times going back to the 1980s, but the holdings for all three have been much the same for years. Most go back to 1980, but it’s doubtful that the missing 1980 through 1986 will justify their charges. For example, Dialog’s New York Times Fulltext (File 471) costs $34.80 a connecthour ($1 per DialUnit) and $3.55 a result for the fullest format 9 (40 cents less than The New York Times’ own premium price). Factiva lets you search for free—well, once you’ve paid your annual fee—but then charges $2.95 per result.
Robert Schrott, competitive intelligence manager at LexisNexis, defended the company’s product. "The value of the service is not in a single source (current or archival) but the unique combination of insights customers can glean based on the sum-total of the content we provide customers through our suite of solutions." Even Rod Gauvin, senior vice president of publishing at ProQuest, in defending the wisdom of librarians’ maintaining their commitment to ProQuest’s complete archive (1851–2004), pointed to the value of searching The New York Times in conjunction with others of the 24 newspapers ProQuest archives. In other words, one of the main selling points for paying for access to The New York Times is the searchable presence of content not from The New York Times. But if other newspapers follow the lead of The New York Times and make their archival content available for free as well, that advantage could disappear. Already Google News Archive opens up access to free content wherever it can, as well as locating searchable content that does require payment, e.g., the ProQuest collection for The Washington Post.
ProQuest is vigorously defending its Historical New York Times collection, arguing that it is designed to serve different needs and users, namely scholars and in-depth researchers and their librarians. Value-added metadata includes 21 article-type categories (display ads, birth/death announcements, political cartoons, editorials and opinions, front page, comics, stock quotes, classifieds, etc.). One can also view and browse the newspapers in original page layout as well as by article. The new "Extra Edition" version carries editorial groupings of articles on topics, including a few from non-New York Times archives. Gauvin admits, "At the end of the day, there’s no question that folks will use [NYTimes.com] content, that there will be people drawn to it, but the applications of what we have built are for reference and research." Although he could not share any specific statistics, Gauvin stated that "libraries all over the world are subscribing, from all segments—academic, public, corporate, etc." He also pointed out that the 1851–1922 portion of the archive now made free by The New York Times is only 15 percent of the total file. Of course, NYTimes.com also offers the 1987 to current archive at no charge, so any ProQuest Historical New York Times subscribers seeking to search 2005 - 2007 content will have to go to NYTimes.com for the years not yet covered by ProQuest.
But will librarians and information professionals see things the way ProQuest and other online aggregators hope they will? Doubts persist. The same day The Times announced the new policy, Ann Okerson, associate university librarian for collections and international programs at Yale University, kicked off a lively discussion on the liblicense-l list by posing this question: "I believe libraries have paid a significant sum of money for the back issues that will now be available for free (e.g., before 1923). Should we now be dropping out of those arrangements?" Though some of the responses advocated staying the course, even some of those thought that new arrangements, specifically lower-priced arrangements, might be appropriate. However, the discussion did look forward to the potential for ad-only business models to free up more content.
Even ProQuest is looking to the possibilities for advertising as a model. Gauvin thought that "they did not yet have the support for advertising in the library space. We’re not there yet, but if the day comes when we think we could do it, perhaps as an option for a different pricing model, we would try." When it comes to archive pricing, ProQuest already supplies a pay-for-use service in its ProQuest Archiver used by the Los Angeles Times, TheAtlanta Journal-Constitution, the Chicago Tribune, and The Boston Globe. But until that day arrives, ProQuest currently charges, according to Gauvin, as much as $8,000 a year for a large academic library to as little as $2,000 annually for a smaller public library. And, at present, The New York Times archive is the highest priced of all the digital newspapers in ProQuest Historical News Archives.
By the way, I asked Schiller whether libraries that subscribe to the print edition of The New York Times could classify as "home delivery" subscribers with free access to the entire archive. She indicated that home delivery was intended for individuals and households. Though she wasn’t sure, she thought the answer was probably no. On the other hand, creative librarians capable of careful manipulation of any firewalls might find ways to increase NYTimes.com’s usage. For example, patrons might search to their heart’s content and bring back lists of key articles from the 1923–1986 period for librarians to add to their 30-day 10-packs.(For an example of another somewhat unexpected source of free content, check out today’s NewsBreak, "Elsevier Launches Vertical Portal With Ad Revenue Support: OncologySTAT," http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=39677.)