Until recently, it looked to me and to most others like newspaper web sites would have to stop giving away their content for free and begin charging for access. In another sign that we were wrong, the New York Times has announced that it is abandoning the “Times Select” model under which it segregated its most famous columnists and certain other supposedly premium content behind a paywall, for either subscribers to the print edition or those who paid a special online access rate. Not only will all that current content be free, but, as Dan Gillmor notes gleefully, much of the previously pay-to-read archives will become free content too.
Supposedly the problem was not that they made too little money, but that they decided they could make a lot more:
The Times said the project had met expectations, drawing 227,000 paying subscribers — out of 787,000 over all — and generating about $10 million a year in revenue.
“But our projections for growth on that paid subscriber base were low, compared to the growth of online advertising,” said Vivian L. Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of the site, NYTimes.com.
What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to NYTimes.com. These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.
I am pretty confident the other problem was that the Times realized the inability of bloggers and others online to read or link their columnists marginalized its storied opinion page in the national dialogue about issues of the day. (Many bloggers, me included, didn’t link to Times content if we could help it).
Now, the New York Times has at best a mediocre record of adaptation to the online world (occasionally good, but often lousy). More generally, the old newspapers and the new bloggers have all struggled to figure out how to make money online. But this major change in course at the Times suggests that advertising-driven models may be the future after all. If so, that’s wonderful news for the continued open texture of the web.