Ghost Sites of the Web

Web 1.0 history, forgotten web celebrities, old web sites, commentary, and news by Steve Baldwin. Published erratically since 1996.

September 23, 2005

The New York Times' "Times Select": Personal Edition Redux?

I am a reader of both the offline and online versions of the New York Times, and I am horrified at the newspaper's recent decision to put much of its contents behind a paid firewall called Times Select.

The wisdom of this decision has been called into question by a good article by Jay Rosen on the Huffington Post. I have little to add to Rosen's piece, except to note that I once worked for a globally dominant news and entertainment empire which bet all its chips on a paid, subscription-based content service. It was called Personal Edition, and was a complete and utter disaster. When it failed, it was only a matter of time before Time-Warner fell into the treacherous arms of AOL.

Only time will tell whether Times Select achieves its subscribership targets, which according to Rosen number in the hundreds of thousands. But history has not been kind to subscription-based schemes which lock up a newspaper's best assets behind a firewall. Personal Edition, the Interchange Online Network, the Washington Post's Digital Ink weren't projects aimed at increasing the breadth or quality of online information. They were retrograde efforts born of fear. Their aim was to control access in order to staunch the flow of red ink, and each failed miserably because they eviscerated the content that users went there for (which in the Times' case certainly include the columnists Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and Maureen Dowd). And once users realized that the "free areas" had been gutted, they left and never came back.

It is impossible for me to read the Times' move as anything less than a desperate act which never would have been taken had the newspaper studied the record of Internet failure and the extremely poor record that subscription-based services have. Only porn services and the Wall Street Journal have been successful at evading the odds against such paid services. Why? Because in the hierarchies of human needs, sex and money rank high: far above Tom Friedman and David Brooks, whose words most of us can simply do without.

Is there a bright side to the Times misstep? You bet there is. More and more people will simply eschew the NYT columnists and extra features, and turn to the ever-growing, ever-improving Blogosphere for intelligence and wit. I'm sure this is not the result the Times intends, but for underfinanced and underrecognized opinion Blogs, Times Select couldn't have come along at a better time.

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