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The Times they is a'chargin'

The New York Times decided that, come September, it will start charging for some of its online content. This twists the knickers of many a blogger, but makes me glad.

Recently the New York Times announced that it will start charging for some of its web content. While many people who write for the web are critical of the move, and feel that it will make it harder to link to source material on NYTimes.com, I think it's a great move. A major player in online content is sending the signal that they believe web content has significant value and is worth money to readers. The easy access to archives makes this a good deal for anyone who is serious about news tracking. And, under the fair use provisions of copyright law, subscribers can always liberally quote from articles and respond to them when they blog about Times articles, while still citing permanent URIs.

I'm a New Yorker, and I spend around $250 a year buying the Times on paper at the corner store. Both the paper and online editions of the paper are tax-deductible expenses for me. To me, as a steady consumer of the Times, this service looks like a full backup of the paper edition that will be available whenever I need it. I write this not to say “look at me!” but to point out that, while many have said that the Times is making a huge mistake, I'm ready to pay and have my wallet out. Obviously the Times has come to the conclusion that it's better business to find tens or hundreds of thousands of people like me than it is to give away ad-drenched content on the web. This runs contrary to the vision of the web that many people share, but the Times is part of a public company, and I would be very surprised if they hadn't considered many alternatives before deciding on the one that will best serve their shareholders. (When they announced the subscription plan, their share price rose slightly, which probably eased the pain caused by hundreds of critical bloggers.) For those who don't want to read news that was created by a corporation, and that will always remain freely available by its license, there's Wikinews.

Come September, when the service is slated to launch, the Times website will serve as both a publishing platform for those who want to read the news and as a service for those who want context. You have to pay for the service. 37Signals.com does something similar with their Basecamp online project-management tool, which has both free and for-pay versions, and it appears to be working for them. The Wall Street Journal has solid financials--it's an important part of Dow Jones--and they've been mostly off-limits to all but subscribers for years.

While I think the Times has made a good move, I think they could do three things to better serve the web as a whole:

One, they should do a better job of collating their stories into topic/summary pages, and keep these pages free. These pages would be Wikipedia-ish, or be in the form of timelines, and would link back to full articles. Having a large set of such pages, well-organized, would provide a valuable resource to the web as a whole and would keep the Times' Google rankings high. These pages would increase in value over time.

Two, going forward, they should provide substantive free abstracts of subscriber-only articles, not just an ad-hoc selection from the first paragraph. This would make links to an article have some value to everyone and help people decide whether they want to subscribe to read more. Right now their archive pages just serve as frustrating teasers. Every web page should have some immediate value to its reader.

Three, for the same reason, they should do away with the free registration process required before (in many cases) a page can be viewed. Registration pages have no value to the reader. The Times has decided to make a serious investment in serving its readers, for which it expects them to pay. They should carry that ethos into every part of their site. In the long run, I believe, this will help them build better relationships with prospective subscribers, and will leave them in a better position to promote their for-pay services to site visitors.

In the long run, I think it's better for everyone who seeks to make money from the web when major players like the Times diversify their sources of income. Look at the quality of premium cable TV over the last two decades, when compared to the quality of network TV over the same timespan, to see what happens to content when advertisers are the main source of cash. To some people, the announcement from the Times looks like a step backwards, but I think it's a necessary and useful step for the web as a whole. If the Times pulls this off, then perhaps smaller publishers, particularly those that are not very advertising-friendly, can learn from what the Times does and find their own ways to get money out of their readers--readers who will slowly become accustomed to paying for content they want. The web should serve the needs of its users, not the needs of a few hundred advertisers. If that ends up costing money, so be it; this medium is not inherently free.

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