Who's Going to Buy The New York Times's New Opinion App?

The paper of record’s new bid: $6 per month for opinion and aggregation.
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The New York Times

When The New York Times announced its new mobile app, NYT Now, in April, it did more than release a new piece of software to the world. It proposed a new media schedule for would-be users: With time-pegged briefings for the morning and evening, a human-picked selection of stories from the website, and a list of interesting news stories from other sites, it made sense of the daily deluge of Times content.

For some users—for me—the schedule stuck. Like the designer Craig Mod, I’ve “opened NYT Now multiple times a day, everyday, since the day it was released.” 

NYT Now is only the first of three new apps from the Times this year. The second goes live today: It’s NYT Opinion, an iPhone app that packages the complete daily offering of the paper’s extensive opinion section. 

Or, that’s some of the product. With the release of NYT Opinion—the app—the paper has unveiled a new kind of subscription, opinion-only, that customers can purchase for $6 per month. For $78 per year, the subscription allows customers to use NYT Opinion apps and to access any opinion story on nytimes.com.

It gives readers, in other words, access to something that—when I talked to Timesfolk on Tuesday—they frequently called “the Opinion franchise.”

“The opinion franchise is one of the most valuable franchises for The New York Times,” Denise Warren, the Times’s executive vice president of digital products, told me.

John Geraci, director of new digital products, said the app grew out of “months” of conversations with opinion fans about what they want in an app. Centrally, he said, opinion readers just want access to the opinion section. But they want something else, too: “They want more voices, as well. They want a broader range of voices.”

The new app seems to serve this need. Like NYT Now, it’s broken into three columns. The first—“Today”—serves all the Times’s opinion content from one day in a single stream. There, the paper’s unsigned editorials sit next to its guest Op-Eds sit next to Maureen Dowd getting stoned out of her gourd. Stories from the Sunday paper’s expanded opinion section will also reside in “Today,” as do the paper’s excellent Op-Docs video series.

Second, there’s an “Op-Talk” section: an aggregated list of opinion pieces that the paper’s staff think are especially deserving. The paper will look both to the national media—yesterday, an Atlantic story about the Spanish king’s abdication sat at the top—and smaller places its readers might not check.

The opinion staff seeks to draw on “small publications you’ve never heard of in the United States, publications overseas, even from publications in China,” said Geraci.

Right now, he added, the opinion section was often where the dialogue “begins,” but not where it ends. “It’s occurring around us, and we want it to occur on the New York Times.” With the Op-Talk aggregation stream, “we can keep the water-cooler conversation on the New York Times platform.”

The app's aggregated 'Op-Talk' section (NYT)

“We’ve never really done a lot of trying to round up the best opinion of what’s done elsewhere,” said Andrew Rosenthal, who edits the paper’s opinion division. “We do it already in that we try to put stuff on the page everyday that we think people will want to read.”

The section has been hiring staff accordingly, mostly from outside the Times machine. Six people are working on the app right now: two dedicated to writing, two to editing new content, and two to “just go finding great stuff,” according to Rosenthal. He estimated the paper would hire two more to fill out its team, such that it could edit and aggregate around the clock.

He said the staff would hunt for “provocative, thoughtful, entertaining” articles, and that readers would understand that—unlike the paper’s own op-eds—it wasn’t vouching for the fact-checking (or copy-editing) of these recommended reads. They would also summarize wide-ranging arguments across the web into short, hyperlinked summaries. “There’s no ideology here—if there’s a really good editorial in the Wall Street Journal, we’ll give it to you.”

“We’re not very good with cat pictures,” he added. “But we’ll get there.”

The Op-Talk stream will also be available on the opinion section’s website.

The app’s final column—like on NYT Now—is a place to save stories for later reading: a kind of Instapaper for the New York Times. Like Nieman Lab’s Josh Benton, I was surprised by how much real estate that app afforded this function at first, but now it makes sense. There’s no way to access an archive from NYT Now or NYT Opinion, so the only way to read stories after they expire is by saving it in the queue. 

In the next few weeks, NYT Opinion will also augment this save-later feature with a following feature. Users will be able to “follow” a columnist, and when they write something new—an editorial or a blog post or even, said Rosenthal, a tweet—it will appear in the to-read queue. Followers will even get a pop-up notification alerting them to new content. 

It’s a feature for the hardest of “opinion franchise” devotees, and one that makes clear the larger question I have about this app: Who is it for? Who pays $6 a month for the Times’s opinion offerings, but doesn’t want to pay $15 for the full digital subscription?

“People who are pretty informed about the news and have other ways of getting the news, but are really interested in Op-Ed, basically,” said Rosenthal. “There’s definitely an audience that consumes a pretty sizable amount of our opinion content, but they’re not subscribing to the New York Times.

“What we’re hoping that we can attract a slightly broader audience than the one that we tend to [right now],” he said. “And if they happen to be younger than our current readers, we’d be thrilled.”

The Times has sold its opinion product alone before, of course. From 2005 to 2007, the paper placed its opinion offerings and archive behind an impenetrable paywall in a program called TimesSelect. The paper eventually terminated the program, making everything on its website free before it began its metered paywall in January 2011.

“We had a lot of people who paid for [TimesSelect],” Rosenthal said. “The problem with that was, you can’t read the columnists unless you paid, and that was a great idea—except the columnists really hated it.”

“The single biggest different between this and TimesSelect is a hard wall,” said Warren. “The reason we abandoned TimesSelect wasn’t because it was unsuccessful, but because search and social were going to be such big traffic drivers.”

But who will subscribe to NYT Opinion?

“This is not about just the things that will interest the well-educated Upper West Sider who’s up on the news,” Rosenthal told me.

The Times's opinion desk is a funny thing. Probably the most important page in American daily journalism, it’s also the publisher of writers like Thomas Friedman, mocked in many circles for predictability. That doesn’t keep me from checking the editorial page whenever I open the paper, though.

So I wonder if one of the great audiences for this app will be aspirational: people who want and hope to read the New York Times’s proclamations on the news of the day, but who don’t want to pay the $15 per month. You can learn a lot about the news by just reading the opinion section, and folks who subscribe to NYT Opinion but not the paper’s cheapest full digital subscription will save $117 annually.

Which is why I think it makes more sense to compare the NYT Opinion subscription not to NYT Now, but to Slate Plus, the web outlet’s new premium subscription offering. Slate doesn’t have a paywall, but it has placed premium content behind this velvet rope, which—at $5 per month—is one dollar less than the Times product. Both propose the same question to readers: “You love our thoughts and read us regularly—why not chip in a little bit?”

It’s not an unrealistic question to ask. Opinion, for a long time, seemed hard to sell on the web: There were simply too many blogs blithely opining on the news for free, many of them more expert on their topics than former national political columnists. As those remaining blogs have been folded into larger publications, though, maybe there’s an opening now for readers to support the institutions—and the voices—they come back to. NYT Opinion provides just that.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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