All The News That's Fit to Free

Jay Rosen

I recommend Jeff Jarvis’s obituary for TimesSelect. The thing died at midnight last Wednesday, 19 September.

‘With it goes any hope of charging for content online. Content is now and forever free.’ Jarvis thinks Murdoch will tear down the pay wall at the once-mighty Wall Street Journal; and there are signs  that Murdoch thinks  he will too.

TimesSelect represented the last gasp of the circulation mentality of news media,’ wrote Jarvis, ‘the belief that surely consumers would continue to pay for content even as the internet commodified news and more important even as the internet revealed that the real value in media is not owning and controlling content or distribution but enabling conversation.’

I think real value is in weaving yourself into the Web. ‘Conversation’ is blogger’s shorthand for that larger idea.

Charging for columnists only made sense as a political action within the conflicted state of the Times, a compromise among contending factions and a show of support for certain ideas that spoke to parts of the base. ‘People will pay for Times journalism because Times journalism is much better than what those people can get for free ‘ spoke to the newsroom base. In that world, TimesSelect made sense.

The professional premium had to be established. The Wall Street Journal had done it by charging for its web edition. The Washington Post was comfortable staying free and finding more of the web it could like. The New York Times was to have its own strategy; this became TimesSelect.

Staci Kramer at has the view from the Times, provided by Vivian Schiller, a Senior VP and General Manager of She sounds cool and collected:

Schiller insisted, as she and other NYT execs have said before, that TimesSelect was on plan, was bringing in $10 million in subscription revenue and was successful: ‘This is what is really important it did work. It’s just a matter of as compared to what.’

In this case the ‘what’ is the result of traffic increases from search-engine optimisation (SEO) and the NYT‘s belief that by opening millions of pages to search engines, that traffic growth will continue and with it, ad revenue growth.

That’s the decision in web court accepted by the New York Times. The decision says you can try to charge, and some people will pay, but there is more money and a brighter future in the open flow of Web traffic, a lot of which is coming sideways into your content stack because Google sends you tons of users via that route, not through your pearly gates of news, also called a homepage. Just as RSS sends stuff from the middle of the stack out.

When every barrier you create to their participation with your product weakens your revenue stream, which is tied to openness, you’re in the world of the consent decree. Advertising tied to search means open gates for all users. It means link rot cut to zero, playing for the long haul in web memory and more blogs because they are web-sticky. (For other reactions see Scott Rosenberg here, Steve Johnson here, Doc Searls here and Mark Potts here, again here.)

Case watchers are advised to pay close attention to Times journalists blogging for the brand.   John Markoff’s snooty verdict in 2003 that   ‘ it’s not clear yet whether blogging is anything more than CB radio ‘ has been overthrown. Paul Krugman has debuted his blog: ‘Conscience of a Liberal.’ Keep an eye on linking practices throughout the site: more web-centric (good) or still Times-ified (bad.)

When I got word that the case was settled and the lights would go out on TimesSelect, I went back to my post from two years ago, ‘Charging for Columnists.’ It held up pretty well. ‘If one faction wanted to go the Wall Street Journal‘s pay wall route, and another wanted to remain free like the Post, then TimesSelect is not a hypothesis for how to succeed on the web, but just a mid-point between competing theories.’

The mid-point, a political compromise more than a publishing strategy, has collapsed.

That post usually makes the first page of results for a Google search of ‘times select.’ PressThink has its own version of search optimisation, and occasionally it works. Write a post that’s a good guide to the broader discussion online because there are many voices and perspectives linked into it, as well as ‘the news.’ Give the post a title and subtitle that anticipate basic search terms. (‘Charging for Columnists: Notes and Comment on the Launch of TimesSelect.’) Over time it will weave itself into the web, and become one of the reference points for debate. Multiple points like that add up to web authority, and a second traffic source from search.

Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 says  that is ahead of other sites in ‘realising the value of premium content by opening it up to the web’s link-based economy.’ When the Times bought  it brought an open-to-search mentality into its organisation, and it’s paying off. (About 80 per cent of About‘s traffic is from search.)   TimesSelect was always in conflict with that.

The reasons why were captured in Simon Waldman‘s January 2005 guest post at PressThink, ‘The Importan
ce of Being Permanent
.’ As the director of digital strategy and development for the Guardian Media Group (UK, but soon to launch in the US), he had come to realise that the professional premium is better located there. Etch yourself into the web as a record of key events. Waldman spoke lines The Times has accepted in its consent decree abandoning ‘Select.’

Permanence is about ensuring you have a real presence on the net. It is a critical part of having a distinctive identity in an increasingly homogenous landscape. It is about becoming an authority and a point of reference for debate. It is about everything we want and need to be.

Without permanence you slip off the search engines. Without permanence, bold ideas like ‘news as conversation’ fall away, because you’re shutting down the conversation before it has barely started. Without permanence, you might be on the web, but you’re certainly not part of it.

Now they want to be a part of it. Not a good sign, then, that pay wall logic lives on in the archive policy the Times has adopted after TimesSelect. Staci Kramer had this: ‘Much of the NYT‘s archives the past 20 years and the public domain years of 1851-1922 will be opened Some content from 1923-1986 also will be available for free but the primary use of those years will be for e-commerce.’

From World War I to the end of the Cold War it makes sense for The Times to charge? Well, I guess they didn’t consent to everything. There are still executives at the Times company holding out against the logic of the open web. For these people it’s truly midnight in the cathedral of news. The Times has decided it’s better off in the bazaar.

And Dan Gillmor thinks they will do very well there:

Presumably, each article will have a perma-link. If so, watch what happens. The Times‘s stories many of which are definitive moments of journalism will become the de facto primary sources for people around the Web, and around the world. On topic after topic, the Times story (or stories) will move near or to the top of the search engine rankings. They will become more valuable for keyword and other advertising once people click through to the actual stories.

I received a notice about TimesSelect in my email. It explained the change thusly: ‘Since we launched TimesSelect, the Web has evolved into an increasingly open environment.’ (There’s also an FAQ.) That’s the strategic direction to which the Times, an evolving newspaper, has now given its consent.

This is an edited version of a post to Jay Rosen’s blog, PressThink.

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