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    Open Letter to the Times::Mr. Sulzberger, Tear Down This (TimesSelect) Wall!

    by Mark Glaser
    June 7, 2006

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    An Open Letter to New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

    Chairman Sulzberger, if you seek peace in cyberspace, if you seek prosperity for your company, if you seek to spread ideas online: Come here to this TimesSelect gate! Mr. Sulzberger, tear down this pay wall!

    I understand the fear of losing print subscribers to a free website at NYTimes.com, and the pain of division in your own newsroom, where columnists yearn to roam free in the blogosphere of opinions. To be sure, your business must resist the expansion of free Internet news portals such as Google News and Topix.net. So you must maintain profit margins of unassailable strength. Yet we seek free and open access to some of the great minds of our generation — the Times columnists — so we must strive to reduce paid walls around us online.

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    Beginning 10 years ago, the Internet challenged the pre-eminent journalism of newspapers with a grave new threat — hundreds of websites and weblogs that gave a global platform to everyday citizens, capable of fact-checking every newspaper in the U.S. The Times responded by first challenging this growing menace and refused to bargain in earnestness.

    But through it all, the alliance of bloggers stood firm, and I invite those who protested then to protest today and join with me in asking the Times to do the right thing and abolish TimesSelect to the history books of bad Internet business decisions.

    We must remember a crucial fact: Bloggers and newspaper journalists don’t mistrust each other because we each have a different medium for expression; we have different mediums for expression because we mistrust each other. And our differences are not about technology but about liberty for ideas.

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    The time is long past when the printing presses and mainstream broadcast outlets were the only platform for opinion journalism in America. Tens of millions of flowers are blooming with opinions reaching far and wide on the Internet; from grandmas to children, from transsexuals to rednecks, we all have a voice on blogs, podcasts and web pages. Despite all the economic pressures in the new media journalism world, the Times stands secure as a profitable company. And online business models are transforming the globe.

    At the Los Angeles Times, at the Boston Herald, at Fortune Magazine, free content that was previously walled off by paid walls online has been given a rebirth for free. Throughout the online world, free content supported by online advertising is working miracle after miracle with economic growth.

    A technological revolution is taking place — a revolution marked by rapid, dramatic advances in computers and telecommunications. But you know this all too well. At the New York Times Company’s News Media Group, online ad revenues were up 25% in April 2006, while ad revenues were up at your About.com division by an eye-popping 84.5%.

    Mr. Sulzberger, only one set of high-profile editorial writers has not joined the community of free content online — the ones at your flagship newspaper. Yet in this age of redoubled economic growth online, of information and innovation, the New York Times faces a choice: It must make fundamental changes, or it will become obsolete.

    My fellow Netizens, there are signs of hope. You at the Times did eventually decide to join the ranks of blog publishers. You decided to merge your online and print operations. And you admitted only last March that the jury is still out on the TimesSelect wall. “It is a bet,” you told The Rake. “But it’s a bet on the value of judgment, the value of insight, the value of experience.”

    That bet goes against the movement in the online world toward open conversations and open discussion of the important topics of our times. The business minds at NYTimes.com went strongly against conventional wisdom with the idea of closed thought available only to those with the money to pay for a print or online subscription.

    The height of foolishness was reached only recently with your announcement that the NYTimes.com website would offer a blog for the World Cup featuring viewpoints from soccer fans from around the world — behind the paid wall of TimesSelect.

    Today thus represents a moment of hope. We in the blogosphere and in cyberspace stand ready to cooperate with the Times to promote true openness, to break down barriers that separate people, to create a free exchange of ideas. And surely there is no better place than at the Times newsroom, the meeting place of so many free-thinking minds.

    So set Maureen Dowd free! Let David Brooks roam the nether regions of cyberspace! Uncuff Thomas Friedman to let him see the world is not flat! Break the chains that bind Nicholas Kristof! Let Frank Rich out to slum with the rest of us!

    Let us usher in a new era, to seek a still fuller, richer fabric of opinion on the Internet. Together, let us maintain and develop ties between the journalism of the past and that of the future.

    [This letter is a modified version of the famous speech given by U.S. President Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Germany, on June 12, 1987.]

    UPDATE: Blogger and newspaper consultant Tim Porter defended TimesSelect and called my open letter “wrong-headed.” His main point is that the Times is doing the right thing by trying to make money online and shouldn’t give away its valuable content for free. My response is that of course journalists should be paid for their work, but that TimesSelect is the wrong way to do that. Online advertising is booming, and paid content online — whether general news or business news — is not.

    UPDATE 2: I’ve written a follow-up post trying to clarify some of the points here. Plus I wonder whether the Times might take a different tack and just turn their columnists into bloggers.

    Tagged:
    • LJP

      I wouldn’t even use that newspaper to wrap fish!

    • Rob

      I’m not a paid writer of any sort, and yet I respect that writers deserve to be paid – and thereby that the companies that employ them deserve to make a profit. Whether you like it or not, the Times has zero moral obligation to make all content free, and quite a moral obligation to do their best to stay in business. The comparison to a political imprisonment is pretty silly & not very useful.

    • Huzzah, Bully, and Bravo

      Let them loose to propagate their wisdom around the world, which simply won’t bother paying for them. Mind you I hunt down Dowd, Krugman, and rich Frank (who may be the best wordsmith working) on the rebel sites that host them, but I think if I bought the paper twice a week I’d spend as much as NYT wanted for online access to just these columnists.

      Michael Hammerschlag
      http://hammernews.com

    • Bonnie

      Mea culpa. I paid for Times Select. I debated with myself for some time whether I should spend the money or fall by the wayside as one of the deprived. I felt the Select premise was wrongheaded from the start and hesitated to join the crowd of the “select” few who could get the big picture the Times offered, the new ideas, the ongoing debates.

      Alas, I counted on my weekly fix of Dowd, Rich and Kristof too much and succumbed.

      To appease my sense of guilt I spend way too much time copying and pasting good Times Select content into emails for wide distribution to family and friends.

      Mr. Sulberger, set me free as well?

    • James B. Flateau

      I wish automobile dealerships would provide me with their product gratis, ditto the restaurants where I eat my favorite meals and the theaters at which I pay for tickets to my favorite Broadway shows. Instead, I actually have to pay for the services that I want to receive. Like them, newspapers are actually businesses, not public resources.

      If some papers provide free access to their materials on a web site, that is certainly their prerogative in trying to gain/increase credibility and/or readership.

      Because The Times needs to accomplish neither, I think it has the right (as do newspapers like The Wall Street Journal) to decide what of its work product it will provide gratis, and that for which readers actually must pay.

    • mark glaser is to be commended for explaining why timeselect was a mistaken decision by New York Times management.

      when the web was invented 16 years ago, newspapers could have chosen to embrace this new medium by having more public participation in the marketplace of ideas. instead, they fought the medium.

      when a huge wave comes crashing down on you, the smart thing to do is to figure out ways to make the wave work in your favor, rather than against you.

      if you fight the wave, you will surely drown.

    • Terry MAGUIRE

      If it is a question of new models, then why not also ask the dairy industry to offer bottles of milk for free, with the cost of the milk – and profit to the dairy farmers, etc. – coming from advertising messages pasted on the milk bottles? I hope the “wall” stays; sooner or later, people who want the “wall” taken down because they are too cheap to pay will come to value getting paid themselves (if they write for a living) more than demanding that other people work for free.

    • SomeJoe

      I haven’t read but one or two of the NYTimes columnists since the wall went up, and those only in reprints on other news sites. None of the zillion blogs I read are talking about them either. The NYTimes columnists have effectively dropped out of the new stream of public discussion.

      And they haven’t really been missed all that much.

      Furthermore, calling them “some of the great minds of our generation” is just downright laughable. But aside from that, even if they were, great minds without an audience are just fools muttering in the shadows. They don’t matter very much anymore, pack up and move on.

    • It offends me when people say this is about the free flow of opinion.

      It’s about money. Period.

    • brian

      I’d be happy if they just got rid of registration for the regular stuff.

    • Max

      I think that the Times Select system is a good one in that it ensures that it remains profitable for the NYT to maintain a great online presence.

      I pay for the NYT Select since its much cheaper that subscription and I can read it anywhere on my travels. Just because a blogger can’t link to it doesn’t make it evil.

      Online advertising success is a recent phenomenon. I don’t think that it makes sense to change the system on the whim of the web. Its a business and it needs to make money. Fifty bucks isn’t a lot of money for quality.

    • Please, allow me to ‘re-use/re-write’ as the author did.

      Satellite Radio – $12.95 a month
      VOIP Phone Service – $24.95 a month
      Cell Phone Service – $85.00 a month
      Digital Cable – $75.00 a month
      Broadband Access – $29.95 a month

      Still having an extra $5.00 a month left over for the Times Select, Lucky!

    • James Neal

      It seems as if Thomas Friedman has something to say about the matter … http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlny/new_media/why_nyts_thomas_friedman_hates_timesselect_38351.asp

    • Thanks for your more well thought out presentation against this idea at the NYTimes.

      I wrote about this as well, in May 2005 and a short lament in September 2005, yours is more effective!

      Thank you…

    • I agree, when the New York Times put their opinion writers behind the Wall, they did, for all practical purposes, make those writers irrelevant in shaping American opinion.

      As far as I’m concerned that’s a feature, not a bug.

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    • Yep, TimesSelect is a brain-dead biz decision.

      Moving on:

      Anyone care to predict when the NYT will fold it ?

      My prediction: never. They’re too danged convinced of their own intelligence.

      Thus joining various other metaphorical buggy-whip manufacturers on the ashheap of economic history.

      — stan

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