Thursday, October 6, 2005

Life with Times Select: A Half-Step Towards The New Aggregation

When The New York Times announced its new Times Select offering a couple of weeks back the media din was deafening, much of it against the segregation of their major columnists behind the new subscription package's firewall. Busy enough anyway, I gave it a rest and thought that I'd see if it grew on me. In short, some of it did, but much of it didn't. Some of the features in Times Select make perfect sense and fit in with our New Aggregation model of using basic content objects to promote and proliferate the availability of premium levels of content such as background material, multimedia and (upcoming) podcasts to a broader audience. Special advance access to Sunday Times content is welcome also, a little bit like coming back from a show in New York and grabbing tomorrow's paper at midnight from the newsstand. Perfect. It's the basis for a growing online community willing to get deeper content to complement basic news.

But no matter how many angles from which my mind plays back the segregation of their lead columnists behind the subscription wall it comes back a loser. My assumption is that somebody in the marketing loop saw radio personality Howard Stern moving his act to the Sirius subscription satellite service and said to themselves, "Aha, people are willing to pay for daily fixes of superstars!" Well, maybe that works for potty-mouthed monologuers, but it seems to ignore what weblogs have done to online commentary. Weblogs are about taking part in a broader Web-driven conversation, appreciated not only for the perspectives of people who write them but as well for the way in which the best webloggers manage to become editors in their own right to help bring current news stories to life with links to alternative coverage and background materials. Recently developed sites such as The Huffington Post wrap links to news around a string of strong contributing webloggers who provide the backbone for the site. Opinionated, yes, but ultimately the balance of editorial skills that many are seeking to absorb news more efficiently.

The Times Select model provides temporary bolstering of online and print revenues squeezed from those who need their Op/Ed "fix" of established columnists, but in the long run it isolates these columnists from the media mix that's driving much of the value of online news content today. One has to assume therefore that the Times wants them isolated to some degree, keeping their personal brands in check before they can bolt to become independent news-driving superstars in their own right, much as movie studios locked in key stars to long-term contracts to bolster their content & distribution empires. But when television came along and made stars out of "nobodys," the studio system fell apart. Weblogs, this generation's disruptive technology, are doing the same with a whole new generation of commentators who are pulling away the "superstar" status from newspaper columnists who are not allowed to engage audiences on equal terms.

The Times Select project will probably milk their older columnists like aging studio properties and eventually usher in a new generation of commentators who can help them build market share on an equal footing with webloggers - and then build premium levels of content around their open content. Expect this to happen with webloggers from the Weblogs, Inc. crowd as they are absorbed into AOL's media empire. In the meantime, the staple Times columnists will be warming up for their own version of "Sunset Blvd.".
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