A Penny--or More?--for Your Thoughts
In a fun interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, John Tierney, a Pittsburgh native, talks about life as a New York Times op-ed columnist. (Thanks to Martin Wooster for the link.) This bit may suggest why the NYT has made the otherwise puzzling decision to charge for online access to its op-ed columns.
Q: Everyone in our business is agonizing about what will happen to journalism because of blogs and the Internet. I don't want to be cruel, but it seems to me that opinion columnists in newspapers are the most vulnerable to incursions from the Internet. If you have 8 million blogs with people expressing their opinions, why would you want to go to the newspaper?
A: There certainly is lots more competition, but it's interesting that on the Times web site the op-ed columnists are usually among the top e-mailed articles of the day. I believe also that our Web pages are among the most visited. The cliche is that there is so much information out there that people are looking for someone to interpret it for them. Now there are plenty of blogs that will do the interpretation for you, but I think that the more sources there are, the more people want to find some common ground.
I was a freelance magazine writer for 10 years and I hated The New York Times because I would spend two months writing what I considered the definitive article on something and put all this effort into it and it would be in a national magazine, and then an article on the subject would be in The New York Times and it would get all this attention because that was the bulletin board people looked at. I think people still want that bulletin board. Also, I've noticed since I started the column that there are many blogs that start debates based on the columns and the old media.
Despite all those emailed columns, it seems likely that the Times is underestimating online readers' elasticity of demand and is risking its status as the most-talked-about (and blogged-about) newspaper in the world. Besides, as various blog commenters have pointed out, (examples here and here), since the columns are syndicated you can find many of them on other newspapers' sites.
Left out of the blog discussion is an important aspect of the new premium service: Home delivery subscribers like me get it free, and it includes access to the large NYT archives that now charge on a per-article basis. Also, the premium columns include not just those on the op-ed page but others elsewhere in the paper, including major business section columnists.
I can't blame the Times for trying to sell more home-delivery subscriptions, which should boost ad revenue, or for trying to generate some revenue from its website. Maybe if they get this to work, they can give me a raise. But I'm not optimistic--about either the premium service or that raise.
UPDATE: "Well, if they throw in the Crossword Puzzle, I might consider it," writes reader Ray Eckhart, reminding me that the Times has long charged for online access to its puzzles.