Online Subscriptions To The New York Times? Bad Idea.

This decision may lead to more short term dollars for the New York Times, but it’s a mistake that will cost them money and influence in the long-term:

“NEW YORK The New York Times announced today that it will start charging for some online content, beginning in September.

…Home-delivery subscribers will automatically receive TimesSelect membership. For non-subscribers, it will cost $49.95.

…TimesSelect features will include:

• Exclusive access to columnists including David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, Bob Herbert, Nicholas Kristof, Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, John Tierney, Dave Anderson, Peter Applebome, Harvey Araton, Dan Barry, Clyde Haberman, Gretchen Morgenson, Joe Nocera, Floyd Norris, Joyce Purnick, William Rhoden, Selena Roberts, George Vescey, Roger Cohen, and John Vinocur.

• TimesPast: Access to The Times’s extensive archives.

• Exclusive multimedia offerings for TimesSelect subscribers including audio and photo essays, video, and podcasts.

• TimesFile: A new tool that helps readers tag and organize articles from The Times.

• Ahead of The Times: Early access to articles that will appear in sections such as Real Estate, The New York Times Magazine, Travel, and Sunday Arts.

• TimesNewstracker: E-mail alerts to track important news topics. This service is currently sold separately but will be included as part of the TimesSelect benefits.”

The problem with this is that once you stick all the columnists behind a $49.95 subscription wall, the number of people reading those writers will drop like an anvil out of a helicopter. The reality is that there is so much free content out there — and free content of high quality — that most people just aren’t going to pay for what they can get for free. Even if the Times does make money off of the deal, they’ll probably end up trading 90% of their online audience to get 10% of their readers to fork over dough. That 90% will include journalists, bloggers, and countless other people who would otherwise have read and been influenced by those writers.

Columnists like David Brooks and John Tierney? I’m certainly not going to pay money to read them or link to them, since my readers aren’t going to fork over $49.95 to see what they have say. But the people who’ll really be hurt will be liberal columnists like Maureen Dowd, Bob Herbert, Frank Rich and Paul Krugman who all made the Favorite Columnists Of Left-Of-Center Bloggers. A year from now, assuming the New York Times goes through with it, none of them will make the list because most of their current readers will lose access to them rather than purchase a New York Times membership.

Now, if your #1 selling feature for a membership (by far) is your popular columnists, then long-term, how are you going to continue to rake in the loot if you’re killing off their fanbase by requiring a subscription to read them?

If the goal here is make a one time killing at a price of severely cutting into the New York Times online audience while also markedly reducing the popularity of the Times columnists, this makes sense. Otherwise, somebody at the New York Times should think twice about whether this is a good idea or not.

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