Pay or play

So the Times has decided to end Times Select. I wonder if they're refunding the money to those who recently paid for a full year subscription?

Felix Salmon thinks they were undone by the search engines:

Everybody knows that Google has won the search-engine war. But what's much more important is that Google has won the search war – and the latest casualty is TimesSelect. The subscriber firewalls at the WSJ and the FT will be the next to go.

Until Google came along, most content-based websites had a similar business model: users would come to the site's home page, search for what they were looking for, and then find it. So if you wanted a NYT story, you'd first go to, and then search. If you wanted a Wikipedia article, you'd first go to, and then search.

No longer.

When I want to find one of my old blog entries on, I just type the search terms into the Google window in my browser. When I want to find a Wikipedia entry, I do the same thing, in the knowledge that Wikipedia's PageRank will guarantee that entry a top-two spot. Google's even very good at finding books on Amazon.

But Google is very bad at pointing people to anything behind a subscriber firewall – and rightfully so.

Perhaps. But color me skeptical. Internet advertising is still sufficiently problematic that anyone who can charge for a web subscription will probably be better off than getting a lot of low-quality eyeballs from search engines. Low-quality, that is, in terms of ad rates--no apersions on my googling readers.

Advertisers will pay more to reach Businessweek's readers than they will to reach the readers of, say, Time because Businessweek's readers are a much more attractive demographic to sell into. Free publications are the worst: who knows who's picking it up, or why? That's why classifieds and personal ads from people looking to meet other poor people tend to dominate the revenue stream of free weeklies. As far as advertisers are concerned, most google searchers are closer to the guy who picks up the Pennysaver, than to someone you'd deliberately buy an ad to reach. Google overcomes this by targeting ads to the search, but that's so far not a viable strategy for any major paper; the news costs too much to gather.

The problem with Times Select was not, IMHO, that they weren't getting enough web search; it was that they weren't getting enough subscribers to make it worth the effort of maintaining a complex two-tier system; indeed, subscriptions fell slightly this year from already underwhelming numbers. Which is unsurprising, at least to me. As I argued over a year ago:

That's why I was so surprised by the New York Times' TimesSelect strategy. It seemed unbelievably ass-backwards to me. The Times has always had a distinctly mediocre editorial page (at least since I've been a reader), populated largely by household names whose schtick had already begun to wear a little thin when they joined the page. Its news gathering organisation, on the other hand, is probably the biggest and best in the world, with the exception of the wire services and the BBC. So it decided to give its content away for free in the one area where it has a serious competitive advantage over its rivals, and put a pay barrier in front of its opinion journalism.

But it seems to me that with the possible exceptions of Paul Krugman and David Brooks, people read the columnists because they are in the nation's most widely circulated paper, not the other way around. The NYT confused what people read and email each other, with what they will pay for. If those two things were the same, poems about Jesus and pictures of animals dressed up in costumes would have displaced porn and gambling as the internet's biggest industries.

The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, has nearly a million web subscribers according to Wikipedia, or roughly half their subscription base, paying only a slight discount from the print rate. People subscribe to the Wall Street Journal because it offers the most detailed, in depth daily coverage of American business. If you are at a certain level in American business, you have to have it to know what is going on; therefore, you will pay for it. (Likewise the FT in Britain). Moreover, the fact that you will pay for it makes you more valuable to the publisher as advertiser bait.

I expect that the pay barriers at the Wall Street Journal will therefore remain erect for quite some time. Though possible disconfirming evidence: my old employer has taken down their pay barrier for current content. Though the archives still seem to be behind the wall.