Monday, September 19, 2005

Right step, wrong foot

Although it's a step in the right direction, the debut of the premium section of the New York Times web site sure got off on the wrong foot.

Try though this dedicated user might, it was not possible to register successfully for the new Times Select service that places the top columnists and certain other goodies behind a members-only firewall. Home-delivery subscribers are entitled to free access to Times Select and online-only users can join for $49.95 a year.

Those who are able to register get access not only to Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd & Co., but also get free access to up to 100 archived clips per month and an advance peek at certain stories. Access to the archives, which otherwise clip you $3.95 per clip, is worth the price of admission in and of itself. Apart from the columnists and a few other features, the daily news report will run in the clear and remain available for about a week until it goes into the pay-per-view archives.

The problem with Times Select, which I am sure will be solved in the fullness of time, is that you can’t get in.

After fussing around at for the better part of an hour in the morning, I seemed to have completed the registration process, but still couldn’t get access to the premium content. After waiting half a day, I called the customer-support number and was told to be patient, as the first-day volume had overwhelmed the system. Twelve hours after registering, I still am on the outside looking in.

Fortunately, NYTimes.Com publishes a companion newspaper that is conveniently delivered to my doorstep.

Although the inaugural day was inauspicious from a technical point of view, the Times is on the right track in starting to charge for access to some of the valuable content that it, like most other newspaper publishers, has been giving away for a decade in history’s longest-running introductory offer.

The gift the newspaper industry keeps on giving has provided abundant free content to the increasingly popular news sections of the web sites operated by Google, Yahoo and many others. The news sites, which contribute significantly to the staggering revenues and market values of the Yahoogles of the world , then compete with newspapers for eyeballs and ad revenues.

So, it’s high time that newspapers stop helping the competition and start building their own online sales. As the Times reported in one of those still-free articles, the most commercially successful “free” online newspaper site is that of the Washington Post, where 8.5% of the publication's total ad sales come from the web. This compares with 5.8% for Knight Ridder, 4.8% for the NYT and 4.5% for McClatchy.

As positive as Times Select is likely to be for the NYT, the plan, as discussed here previously, will not necessarily work for every newspaper. The content that publishers sell has to be unique and valuable material a reader can’t find anywhere else. The NYT and Wall Street Journal, which probably grosses $40 million on its all-subscription-all-the-time site, can pull this off with a straight face. But most other publications will have to create new, premium content before they can begin charging successfully for online access.

That’s all the free advice for today.