Everyone (and that includes us) has spent a lot of time complaining about Times Select, the paid online access to the New York Times editorial content. As I still subscribe to the paper version & thus get free access, I haven’t complained so much. One thing that seems not to have been noticed in the debate is that Times Select coverage isn’t exactly the same as the print version: increasingly, they’ve been creating dedicated web content which wouldn’t work on the paper version at all. The most notable web-only content so far has been that they’ve given Marjane Satrapi, her own blog, titled An Iranian in Paris. Satrapi’s a Persian graphic novelist; her Persepolis beautifully illustrates her experience growing up in Iran before, during, and after the revolution.
Her blog’s worth a look – get someone else’s account info, if you don’t have an account. It reminds me not a little of the blog of Alex Itin, our artist in perpetual residence, who continues to fill his blog with pictures, some moving, with occasional dollops of text. Satrapi’s work here feels astonishingly human and casual, thanks in no small part to the handwriting fonts used for the text. It’s interesting to me that they’ve chosen to put this on the web: it’s decidedly paper-based art. But the Web lets her be a bit more expansive than her usual black and white work: consider this image, where she seems to have scanned her passport, than drawn over its image, which would be difficult with electronic technology.
She’s posted three (extended) entries so far, and the Times has given no indication of how long they intend to keep this up – or, really, any explanation of what they’re trying to do here – leading one to hope that this is an open-ended series. Is this worth shelling out money for Times Select? Maybe not by itself. But if they keep providing this sort of web-dedicated content, naysayers might think about reconsidering.
You can’t fault the Times for trying to find a new business model for the web, but they seem to be doing themselves more harm than good with Times Select. Jay Rosen has a terrific post on Press Think running through various reactions to the NY Times’ new subscription service that charges $49.99 per year for access to columnists, archives, and exclusive interactive features. Rosen rightly notes that the Times has gotten the idea of exclusivity all wrong:
The phrase “exclusive online accesss” advertises two different goods. The first good is the work of the Times columnists themselves. The proposition that some will pay for that is hard to prove until you try, but it’s simple to understand. The second good being advertised is exclusivity. You, the lucky TimesSelect subscriber, have access to these voices. Others do not. The value proposition there is muddled. If we prize up-to-date information about petroleum markets, we might value it more–and pay a premium–if the news is exclusively available to paying customers; but do we value Nicholas D. Kristof’s column more if he’s an “exclusive?”
We don’t. In fact, it’s probably the reverse. If everyone is reading a columnist, that makes the columnist more of a must have. If “everyone” isn’t, less of a must. “Exclusive online access” attacks the perception of ubiquity that is part and parcel of a great columnist’s power. In his prime Walter Lippmann was called “the name that opened every door.” Nick Kristof’s brand of human rights journalism, which depends on the mobilization of outrage, is simply less potent if it can’t reach widely around the world, and pass by every door.
The Wall Street Journal is an exclusive paper, so offering it over the web as a pay subscription service actually increases its cachet. The Times is a different sort of paper – it has a general audience and is read the world over. Its ubiquity, its availability over the web, is part of its identity.
Moroever, the Times is seriously overvaluing its columnists, or worse, de-valuing them by placing them behind a pay wall. If I were Tierney, or Kristof or Dowd, I would be furious. It makes them look like preened show dogs when everyone else is duking it out in the commons for all to read. Seems like a one-way ticket to irrelevance. Plus, soon they’re going to have to take part in all sorts of online chats and seminars with Select subscribers – I bet they’ll really start to chafe then.
The archive access is certainly tempting, though over-priced. Still, that seems a better starting point for a paperless subscription model, though it’s hard to imagine archives alone finding a mass paying audience.
It’s really happening. Next Monday, The New York Times will inaugurate its “Times Select” subscription service. NYTimes.com will remain free, with much of the usual content still available (including multimedia), but op-eds and columnists will be pay-only. Oh well, the Washington Post opinion page is better anyway. The 100-article-per-month archive access is slightly tempting though.
The Times is betting that significant numbers of readers will shell out, just like they do for a premium channel on cable. Can the Times be the HBO of web news? Casual reader poll: who’s thinking of paying?
(link: Letter From the Editor explaining the new service to readers)