When the New York Times announced in 2005 a new premium web service wherein only folks willing to pay an extra fee would have access to the writing of certain columnists, most media watchers thought it would be a huge failure.
Well, after about two years, it seems critics might have been right.
According to Slate's Mickey Kaus, TimesSelect might be going the way of the dodo (emphasis added throughout, h/t Glenn Reynolds):
[Kaus Files] hears rumblings that the paper is about to abandon the whole misconceived project in which it has blocked unpaid Web access to its op-ed columnists. ... P.S.: The Times claims fewer than 225,000 customers pay the $49.95 TimesSelect fee, up less than 100,000 from what the paper was claiming in November, 2005. More get the service through their regular subscriptions. Meanwhile, the Times could use the ad revenue that would come from increasing the readership of the columnists (by making them free). And the columnists would like to have the readers. ... All this was quite evident two years ago when Pinch Sulzberger embarked on this folly, of course.
As Kaus pointed out with a hyperlink, a Media Bistro poll predicted the demise of TimesSelect in September 2005 (emphasis added):
Last week we asked you for your opinions regarding the Times' new subscription-only online package that included prominent NYT columnists and an assortment of online add-ons. Your reaction: To put it mildly, you weren't that thrilled. (Are any of you subscribing? Any of you? Besides you, Mr. Keller.)
If the goal of having a website is to keep readers interested in reading story after story, clicking around the damn site for hours, being attacked by s****y banner ads, then why in the hell would you drive them OFF your site by asking them to pay for Times Select?
A September 2005 BusinessWeek article shared this view (emphasis added):
It's true consumers are willing to pay more for certain media offerings. (Consider today's cable bill vs. 1995's, or the costs of broadband vs. dial-up.) But one key market perversity is that this dynamic does not apply to print. Financial analysts find a growing dependence of leading papers -- including the Times -- on discounted subscriptions.
And on the decade-old Web, "free" is the default setting, and it's difficult to make readers reboot. O.K., there's The Wall Street Journal (744,000 online paying customers and counting) and some targeted business sites. There are a few paid non-porn plays, like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Packers Insider. But in August, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution doubled back on a year-old attempt to establish a paid sports Web site. In May, the Los Angeles Times made its calendarlive.com entertainment section free again, following a two-year bid to charge $4.95 for monthly access.
It has proven next to impossible to get online users to pay for something that's not hard business data (which promises to make them money or keep them from losing it) or that doesn't play into fanatical tribal identification. While the Times' Maureen Dowd is a darling of her ideological set, political loyalties have not yet translated into the face-painting extremes of sports.
At the time, Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds was also nonplussed by this idea as he told radio host Hugh Hewitt:
The New York Times thinks it's going to make money selling op-eds, but hard news reporting is the killer ap for news media organizations. If they want to come up with opinion, they're competing with guys like me, and we can kick Paul Krugman's butt any day.
In reality, when it comes to economic commentary, my thirteen-year-old daughter can kick Paul Krugman's butt while actually including real financial facts as opposed to making them up as Krugman is known to do.
Moving forward, there's no question that conservatives have been hoping for the demise of TimesSelect. Certainly, this has nothing to do with missing this content. As Reynolds wrote Thursday:
It was a bad idea, but I find I don't miss them all that much. I get Times Select for free, but I basically never read Dowd or Krugman anymore.
Exactly. And this is one of the reasons conservatives around the country will laugh their heads off when Pinch or Keller announce TimesSelect's demise.
After all, at this point, they'll be confirming that which most of us already knew: no one in their right mind would pay a penny for the opinions of Dowd, Krugman, et al.
I only hope Pinch and/or Keller will invite us to the funeral so that we can pay our final disrespects.