Opinion-Page Makeover::Turn NY Times Columnists Into Bloggers

    by Mark Glaser
    June 12, 2006

    i-0f3f14fce0f7b98c42205d708f7e6858-New York Times blogs.JPG
    Last week I tried to channel Ronald Reagan in asking New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to tear down the TimesSelect pay wall. But perhaps I tried too hard to stick to the original speech, without clarifying my points well. Plus, I wonder what would happen if the Times took the opposite tack, and turned all its columnists into bloggers — what would the benefits of such a move be?

    First, some clarity on what I was trying to say in that open letter. Many people concluded that I was saying the Times Op-Ed columnists should work for free and not get paid.

    “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,” wrote James B. Flateau in a comment on the MediaShift post. “Instead, I actually have to pay for the services that I want to receive. Like them, newspapers are actually businesses, not public resources.”


    True enough and a good point, echoed by many others. But I think the writers can be fairly paid without the TimesSelect wall. Currently, the Times will only let you read these columnists if you are a print subscriber or pay $49.95 per year for TimesSelect, which also includes access to newspaper archives and other goodies.

    To figure out how much the Times is making off of TimesSelect per columnist is downright complicated, because of various factors. If there are 183,160 online-only subscribers as Tim Porter figures, then they could be getting annual revenues of about $4 million to $5 million because of free trials and educational discounts. But how many TimesSelect page views are going to columnists, how many are going to the archives, and how many are going to other TimesSelect features such as multimedia, News Tracker and Times Preview? (See the full list of TimesSelect features here.)

    As a guess, let’s say that columnists get 40% of the page views, archives get 40% of page views, and other TimesSelect features get 10%. So the columnists, as a whole, would account for 40% of $4 million to $5 million, or about $1.8 million.


    Now what if those columnists became bloggers? And what if the Times helped direct its massive online traffic to help promote these bloggers? John Battelle, who runs Federated Media Publishing, a blog marketing network, told me it would be hard to gauge the ad revenues they would bring in.

    “Well, it depends entirely on their page views and the Times’ ability
    to sell,” Battelle told me via email. “Say they do, en masse, 10 million page views a month (about the size of [popular group blog] BoingBoing). And the Times gets a decent [ad rate] for them, say $10 [per thousand page views]. That’s $100,000 a month, or $1.2 million a year. Not exactly a big hit for the Times.”

    Another blog publisher, who preferred to remain anonymous, gave me similar numbers on ad rates for these potential big-name bloggers. So that number — $1.2 million — isn’t that far away from the $1.8 million the Times is currently bringing in from the columnists with TimesSelect. Remember this is very rough guesstimating. Battelle admitted he was taking a shot in the dark.

    “But I really have no idea,” he told me. “It is totally dependent on them actually
    being good bloggers. Which is related to, but not the same as being good columnists. My point on the economics of this is it makes A LOT of sense for individual bloggers with low overhead (who can make $5,000 to $15,000 a month, as many do at FM Publishing). But not much sense for media properties who have loads of operational costs to cover.”

    Of course not every columnist makes a good blogger, but what benefits would the Times and its readers reap from turning some columnists into bloggers? It’s possible that the columnists would be more accountable to readers, and would have more interaction with readers through blog comments. The columnists could become more relaxed, more human, more reachable by the public.

    NYTimes.com won an award for its Kristof Responds blog-like online forum, but then decided to put editorialist Nicholas Kristof and his new blog, On the Ground, behind the TimesSelect pay wall.

    If the Times decides that the money it makes from columnists via TimesSelect is more valuable than opening them up to the free ad-supported web, the columnists could always consider doing blogs on their own and leaving the Times. According to Battelle, “If we could have three to four months’ ramp-up time, [FM] probably could get them to at least their current salaries, I’d wager.”

    What do you think? Which Times columnists would make good bloggers, and which would not? Is this something they should consider doing, or do you think TimesSelect is a fine idea and worth paying for? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    • I don’t see myself as part of the literati, or rather the elite that seem to be fans of the NYT and its columnists. Sure, I have read one or two, but I certainly don’t experience withdrawal symptoms like some of your commenters on the previous post. I am not sure the Select option is a great idea, but like it or not, NYT is a business. I have noticed, like another commenter pointed out, that the so-called great columnists have pretty much vanished from blogospheric discussions, and I do read a pretty big share of blogs and online sources. Not a word, and they really don’t seem to be missed. So, maybe something for the NYT to think about. Who is really reading those columnists then? Overall, seems like a nice speculation, but at the end of the day, not something for the average joe who is somewhat tech savvy to worry over. Best, and keep on blogging.

    • max

      Its funny that you still haven’t supported your point. In fact you’ve just indicated that Times Select is a better idea. At this point they make more money from a stable source. They do not have to deal with all the management required for the click revenue. Also, we shouldn’t discount the number of “bloggers” who will copy and paste the articles in whole for their sites. A shaky revenue perspective.

      The only advantage is to the people who do not want to pay for the articles. My one suggestions is to go to the library and read them the old fashioned way.

      As for going out on their own? How about I suggest that you quit your job and maybe in 3 or 4 months you might make your old salary back, but you are under pressure to always be appealing to the great masses to get that traffic.

      As for their relevance to the blogosphere? Who really cares? Their only real relevance is to the paying customers. If they don’t appeal to them, then they are really useless. However, people do quote them and they are discussion points.

      Remember that the programming is brought to you by generous viewers who are willing to give money for a quality product. The old-age mentality that everything on the web should be free is a dinosaur. If that was the case then there would not be 5 mbit lines as there would be no commercial value.

    • suefitz

      Bloggers are “liberating” all the Times Select columns anyway. Anyone who really wants to read them need only put the columnist’s name and the headline of the column (from the teaser on NYT) into the search engine at Technorati to see the column copied into blog posts. There’s no way to keep text locked up, so this revenue flow is dependent on the ignorance of the mass audience, which won’t last forever.

    • Of course not every columnist makes a good blogger, but what benefits would the Times and its readers reap from turning some columnists into bloggers? Its possible that the columnists would be more accountable to readers, and would have more interaction with readers through blog comments. The columnists could become more relaxed, more human, more reachable by the public.

      Mark! do you realize what you’re advocating?? ;-)

      We’re still pretty much in a top-down media communication thing out here. I always saw the Times Select experiment as a way of cordoning off the Precious from the Rabble because the Rabble upsets the Precious folks too much (we saw that at WaPo, didn’t we?) More seriously, though, I see Times Select experiment ultimately as a means of keeping information out of the hands of the less affluent. Sure, we can thumb our noses and say this or that about Frank Rich or Maureen Dowd, but the fact remains that they add perspective to reported news and are often cited by academics seeking to support opinions. Without free access we end upincreasing the intellectual stratification our Wal-Mart culture.

      And columnists as bloggers? Malcolm Gladwell seems to be doing alright among bloggers. The others? who knows? It would certainly be interesting to see how much income they could, on their own, generate from BlogAds and Google AdSense!

    • At the Guardian our columnists have become bloggers. Comment is Free is a major expansion of Guardian comment and analysis on the web. It is a collective group blog, bringing together regular columnists from the Guardian and Observer newspapers with other writers and commentators representing a wide range of experience and interests. The aim is to host an open-ended space for debate, dispute, argument and agreement and to invite users to comment on everything they read.

      The blog is updated regularly through the day, with best blogs featuring on our pick of the day. We also carry all the comment from the Guardian and Observer newspapers, giving readers the chance to comment on these articles directly for the first time.


    • I really think NYT blew it in marketing the whole TimesSelect thing. They thought that their value was their columnists, but their real value is in the archives. As a Sunday NYT subscriber, I get TS for free, and I have to say that the (virtually) unlimited access to the NYT archives is far, far more interesting than the ability to read Dowd or Tierney (I can get the gist from their headlines!).

      If they were more blog-savvy, they would have given away TS accounts to a bunch of prominent bloggers as a promotion and sold it as a “must-have research tool for the serious blogger.” Nexis for the rest of us, in other words. Better than Google, with a much deeper reach into history. Bloggers already shell out for web hosting, TypePad, Flickr Pro accounts, etc. We love to spend money on things that will make our blogs better!

      Maybe it wouldn’t have worked, but it couldn’t have been much worse.

    • leonard glaser

      I think THE WORLD IS FLAT Tom Freidman would be great blogger. He shows a forward looking attitude in his book, so he ought to be open to blogging. Exchanges with him would probably be interesting.

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