Will Anyone Pay for a Newspaper Online?

Earlier today, The New York Times Company validated several weeks of rumors and, as reported on our sibling publishing blog, announced that its TimesSelect experiment is over. Starting midnight tomorrow night, all content on the NYTimes.com site will be available for free. The Windows-only TimesReader client will still require a paid subscription (hey, it’s Windows; it can’t be free), as will a premium crossword puzzle service. This is part of a larger strategic decision at the company, it appears: the announcement comes just under three weeks after the company announced this it was also closing down its TimesPoints loyalty program. Archives going back to 1987 are now free, as well. (Pre-1922 archives are in the public domain.)

As you’d suspect, public statements by Times Company officials are spinning this as a positive. As the site’s general manager told paidContent’s Staci Kramer, “It did work. It’s just a matter of as compared to what.” In other words, what we were doing was so successful that we’re now going to stop doing it and start doing something else. It reminds me of Senator George Aiken’s advice to President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War: declare victory and change your strategy.

The TimesSelect strategy, which lasted two years, was puzzling. The idea of getting individuals to pay for newspaper content was worth a shot: the only other national paper that succeeded at it was — and continues to be — The Wall Street Journal. But by what reasoning did Times officials decide that its opinion pages were the very ones worth paying for? People pay to read something that will entertain, inform, and — very important — surprise them. But the last place in the Times where you’ll be surprised is on the op-ed page. Do you really have any question what Paul Krugman or Frank Rich think of the Bush administration’s latest move? Their analyses may be authoritative and nuanced, but they’re never a surprise. Even worse, most if not all of the Times op-ed columns were syndicated to other print newspapers and, hence, available without charge on the websites of at least some of those other newspapers.

To be fair, the decision at the Times may make long-term sense. In his post, Radarite Andrew Savikas likens it to the final Kubler-Ross stage: acceptance. There is a general feeling around top offices at newspapers that online advertising is what will save them. It’s been widely reported that even The Wall Street Journal is considering going free online. The Times‘s own coverage spells out the business reason for the change: “many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to NYtimes.com. These indirect readers, unable to gain access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.” In other words, Google made ’em do it.

It’s going to be a tough haul for American newspapers moving forward, even marquee papers like the Times and Journal. Those of us who depend on newspaper content for information, entertainment, and help in decision-making hope they will succeed, in whatever form. It’s too late to be sentimental and moan about the eventual death of the print version of those two great newspapers. (Oh, I know the print versions will stick around. But they will be multi-dollar semi-luxury products, like Starbucks drinks.) What is worth worrying about, though, is that the Times and perhaps soon the Journal have decided that, on their eventual primary platform, their customers aren’t willing to pay enough to make it worth charging them. More than readership, advertising comes in cycles. When there is an Internet advertising dip — however mild, however brief — what will happen to the publications that will be close to 100-percent dependent on advertising? Doesn’t anyone who runs a great American newspaper think newspaper content is worth paying for anymore?