At a time when former subscription services (e.g., CNN Video) are moving to free, ad-supported models, the NY Times is moving in the opposite direction. On Monday, the company is launching TimesSelect, a subscription service that will mean certain content and features will no longer be available for free. Most notably, news and Op-Ed columnists will be behind the gate.
The service is being combined with some existing features that were previously subscription-only, including News Tracker and Archive access. Subscribers to the print newspaper get access online at no additional charge.
The NY Times is one of the few online brands that could attempt such a move — the Wall Street Journal, almost unique in its ability to charge for content online, is making more articles free in a bid to increase readership and boost subscriptions — and the success or failure of TimesSelect will be a real indicator of the ability to charge for news content in the near term (and perhaps even in the long term).
As a strategy to boost subscriptions to the print newspaper, TimesSelect will certainly not succeed on any kind of scale. As a revenue generator (given the predicted migration from print to online readership), it will perhaps be a marginal success. Traffic to the site, however, will likely decline — at least in the near term. (And that may diminish its value to certain advertisers.)
Most of the viral traffic at the NY Times comes from people emailing articles (mostly columns) to one another. Presumably now, only subscribers will be able to email "out." Whether non-subscriber-recipients of those emails will be able to read the articles is not clear, but I assume so. (You want to expose non-subscribers to your best content, right?)
Even as the print newspaper subscriber audience is declining and the online audience growing, the experience of reading a print paper such as the NY Times and reading the same content online is fundamentally different. The print paper is much more pleasurable to read; I would argue it's an €œaesthetic€ experience. By contrast, the online edition (putting the multimedia features aside) is largely about information, which is basically now a "commodity" that can be had from many sources.
Some number of former Times subscribers might be prompted to re-subscribe as a result of TimesSelect (probably not many). And there are probably also some number of people who will hand over the $50 ($40 if you act now) in order to continue their access to the columnists and other features that will be subscription-based after Monday.
Most people will probably shrug and head over to Yahoo! News, Google News, Wikipedia or myriad blogs and other free newspapers online for the same or similar content.
Previously, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., in an interview with BusinessWeek, suggested the motivation for the Times' paid content strategy: "It gets to the issue of how comfortable are we training a generation of readers to get quality information for free,€ he says. €œThat is troubling."
I certainly understand and sympathize with the Times' predicament and if I were in Sulzberger's position I might be trying the same experiment. But if it succeeds, even marginally, it's not something that's likely to be duplicable by many other newspapers. For example, the LA Times' famous "Calendar" section was behind the subscription gate for a while in the guise of Calendarlive. Presumably because of limited online subscriptions the paper reversed course and the content is now free and ad-supported.
If there were more subscription content and less "free" information online, TimesSelect would be more likely to succeed. But because the "culture" of the Internet is one of free information (at least where news has been concerned) it means the odds are against TimesSelect.