The New York Times is ending their TimesSelect “service” as of tomorrow, September 19th. Despite my deep resentment of the whole TimesSelect idea in the first place, I applaud the Times’ decision to end it and to finally align themselves with the way the web’s culture of thought actually works.
During the 2004 election cycle, Times columnists like Paul Krugman, David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd, Bob Herbert, and the rest of the Op-Ed talking heads would regularly be part of my daily readings, and they were an important part of the national political dialogue. Countless blogs would link to them, quote them, and respond to their influential voices. But then when the Times instituted the TimesSelect paywall, all of these thought-provoking voices were silenced, almost overnight. They became invisible to me and literally millions of other regular and loyal readers.
Sure many of the Times’ paper subscribers (who get TimesSelect memberships as part of their subscription price) continued to read these columnists. But the rest of us, those who read the Times online only, pretty much lost contact with them completely. Bloggers ceased linking to them, and eventually they ceased even talking about them. They lost relevance, influence, and credibility. And, as a result, the Times did, too.
As I’ve said before, I have no idea if TimesSelect was a good business decision in 2005 or not. My gut tells me that, ultimately, it was not. It probably didn’t drive many additional subscriptions (people who want a paper delivered to their homes will subscribe anyway, regardless of online add-ons), and it’s hard to imagine that there are more than a few thousand people in the world who are willing to pay the annual fee for just web access to the TimesSelect content.
I’d guess that the total number of people who actually paid the annual fee was tiny in comparison to the number of people who simply stopped reading the Times as much as they used to. The lost revenue from advertising impressions and page views may have been comparable to the revenue gained from the small number of subscriptions and online memberships they gained.
But more importantly, the Times lost some of their their momentum in being an influential force in the blogosphere, and thus in the emerging zeitgeist of the political and cultural dialogues that occur increasingly online. They stopped investing in their own reputation and positioning in today’s networked conversations. And unfortunately, damage like this is hard to repair — it’s like spending two years without contributing to your 401k plan, missing out on two years of accrued credit and growth.
They’ve got a lot of catching up to do, but I for one will glady jump right back in. Welcome back to the interweb, Op-Ed columnists!