Clicks and links will bring all the walls tumbling down
Monday September 24, 2007
The New York Times has just abandoned its two-year effort to charge for content online, taking down TimesSelect, the pay wall around its columnists and much of its archives. So content is now and forever free. That isn’t because people won’t pay for content – some did. It’s because there is a new economy of content online that isn’t built on scarcity and control but instead relies on the idea that content must be public and permanent to realise its value in the wider conversation.
The Times’ public rationale behind TimesSelect did sound good: they were building another revenue stream to balance dependence on advertising. They believed that the Times’ brand and content had unique value, worth seeking out and paying for. They also gave this premium service to paper subscribers for free to support fading print circulation.
But TimesSelect was doomed from the start. Oh, yes, 787,000 readers did subscribe – though most got it free; only 227,000 paid $49.95 (Â£25) a year or $7.95 a month, earning the company $10m at an annual rate. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger scoffed at this amount in a speech a year ago, when he showed the Times’ towering new headquarters and said this much revenue wouldn’t pay the gas bill for the building. And I never heard public discussion of the cost of TimesSelect: the expense of marketing and supporting subscriptions, the resources that went into creating more content to try to make the service worth the fee, and the lost revenue from archive sales. What, if any, profit was left, I have no idea.
TimesSelect was essentially a cynical act. Faced with the goal of finding something to put behind a pay barrier, the paper offered up content that was, indeed, uniquely valuable: its columnists and history. But this was also content with no significant ad revenue attached. So they can say they tried. But the endeavour cost the Times in other ways. It took the paper’s best-known writers out of the conversation and reduced their influence worldwide. Worse, it diluted the paper’s Googlejuice by shutting off search and bloggers’ links to much of its content. Google is no doubt the reason why the paper has now opened up much of its archives – from 1987 to the present and before 1922 – to free access and search. Google has been trying to convince media companies for years that if they made their archives available, they would make more money from advertising than from consumer fees – and they would improve their position and branding in Google searches, gaining yet more revenue.
And that is the economic moral to this story: the death of TimesSelect heralds the continued triumph of the open, free Google media model. If Google bought a newspaper (which they’re no doubt too smart to do), they surely would make its content as freely available as possible: the more clicks and links you get, the more you can make.
So if this marks Google’s victory, then what lost? I think the loser could be the power of the media destination or portal – the notion that consumers should come to us and pay us for scarce information that we control. The death of TimesSelect is an affirmation of the new media reality that says the public will seek out our brands less and less and will detour around the front doors we design for them. Instead, they will arrive because of their own need (via search) or peers’ recommendations (via links). So we in media must open ourselves to the public in every way possible. Tearing down walls – pay, registration, archive, or just obtuse navigation – is only the start of it. I believe this also means finding more ways for our audiences to distribute us: we’ll widgetise. And I believe that we must think like Google and see ourselves as platforms on which others build that larger conversation.
And so, in the wake of TimesSelect’s passing, I’d anticipate that Rupert Murdoch’s ruminations about closing the toll booth at the Wall Street Journal online just became more likely. The bet is that new advertising from a larger audience will surpass the paper’s estimated Â£40m in online subscription revenue. The Economist recently moved much of its content out into the public. So how long can the Financial Times hold to its wall of around Â£9m a year? Will everything soon be free? A wag commenting on my blog suggested the next step is free pizza, supported by ads on the box. But why stop there? Why not targeted ads for antacid on the pepperoni? Pizza 2.0. There is the ultimate Google economy.
Â· Jeff Jarvis is journalism professor at the City University of New York who blogs at buzzmachine.com