Thursday, May 19, 2005

The New York Times Tries a New Tack on Paid Online Content

The media crowds are in a tizzy about the New York Times' announcement of its plans for charging users an annual fee in September to read its Op-Ed pieces, news columnists and archives in a new bundle called TimesSelect as one way to bolster online revenues. On one level this makes sense: to be honest I hardly read the darn hard copy version any more but generally skip to the Op-Ed pieces to see if anyone has a good take on the news. But with weblogs in abundance it's hardly the last port of call for this kind of content, even as new and similarly positioned opinions in new free outlets like the Huffington Post add a far wider array of op-ed outlooks in one easily bookmarked or RSSed site. One has to assume that the marketing folks at NYT took a look at the stats on what people still cared about in the Times from a brand perspective and tried to draw a moat around it. But it just doesn't seem like this is going to fly any better than any other attempt at building subscription value around content as opposed to unique features or services.

What's also making somewhat shady sense is Times SVP Martin Nisenholtz' evolving model for affiliates noted in ClickZ Network's coverage of his comments at a recent industry event. Though 85 percent of its existing traffic comes through its site homepage, Nisenholz notes how the rise of RSS feeds and links from MyYahoo! and other affiliate channels are driving much of the growth in site visits. The scheme? Unbundle site content and drive it into the channels most valued by content consumers. That part sounds pretty sensible, but then Click Z states that "The idea is to sell bloggers TimesSelect and incentivize them to link to content behind the subscription wall by giving them a cut of the revenue gained via new subscribers they refer." Come again? Sell bloggers content? Let's try that again, shall we? Media companies keep thinking that their content is different enough to allow it to be priced differently in open distribution channels, when feature for feature it is essentially the same as free or other ad-supported content. As the L.A. Times discovered with its events calendar listings (earlier post), waving a hand over part of your database that's essentially the same as everyone else's is not a viable scheme. With all due respect to the Times' months of research on this matter the markets have driven well ahead of their research's conclusions. News products must be far more robust and user-centric to justify a subscription wall around unbundled or bundled content. The level of sophistication in most media companies' thinking about content packaging and distribution must make a quantum leap over the next two years if major outlets are going to come out smiling at the end of this period of remarkable transformation.
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