Part 3: TimesSelectors and TimesRejectors

In part 1, found that the number of blog references to the Top 7 Times columnists had likely dropped by 20% against their pundit peers. That's not a bad number considering, that new data from shows that Op-Ed readership a month ago (before TimesSelect ended) was 45% of what it is today. Thus bloggers didn't have a neutral effect in conveying the words of the Times Op-Ed stars to the online reading audience. In fact they were helpful; they were brokers of information in demand. Now that all readers can access the Times Op-Ed columns directly, the relative influence of such brokers diminishes.

The Times Selectors

Let's assume that there were two groups amongst the bloggers. One group we call the TimesSelectors: they chose to keep reading the Times columnists, and continue blogging about their columns. The other we can call the TimesRejectors, the bloggers who made a fuss about the whole thing.

The 227,000 TimesSelect subscribers represented probably a fifth of all daily readers who were not print subscriber readers. Double that number, 471,000 print subscribers, did activate their accounts: these were likely regular daily readers before. Lacking details on the demographics, we can make some guesses. The circulation stats show us that there are more subscribers outside the New York market than inside, and more Sunday subscribers than weekday. The Sunday subscriber was the clear beneficiary of having everyday access.

Furthermore, advertising research conducted by the Times has determined that roughly a fifth of the readers were described as “influentials.” Among general interest/news publications, only the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, and the New Yorker have higher percentages – and none of these give away the store for free. The definition of influentials in the study was based on some measure of political activism, public service, and letter/article writing in the last year: the same sort of activities which one expects from political bloggers.

Think about it: if you are a well-informed person, or a political blogger, and you wanted to keep an edge over the competition, you might think it wise to continue reading the Times Op-Ed and have regular access to the archives. Fifty dollars a year is the cost a nice night out for dinner for two in most of the country, and for one in Manhattan.

The TimesRejectors are more interesting, because they were more vocal, and more irrational. It's difficult to say that they were more numerous. In the week following September 17, BlogPulse recorded 618 blog posts mentioning TimesSelect, these were people watching the service closely enough to celebrate its ending. To put that number in perspective, in an average week during the last two years, our data showed that there are five times that number of references to any of the Times columnists.

The Times Rejectors

Former Online Journalism Review editor JD Lasica announced, upon the debut of TimesSelect in September 2005, that he would boycott it, to “protest the Times' misguided decision” and also “to prevent the Op-Ed Firewall Follies from spreading like a cancer to other news publications.” He added “This experiment will fail inside of 12 months.” It's not clear whether he was referring to TimesSelect or his own experiment, for inside of 11 months, Lasica couldn't resist putting up a blog post saying “Paul Krugman nails it.”

Incidentally, Lasica had cited the “writers' incalculable loss of influence on the Web and in the blogosphere.” There was a loss in the blogosphere, and we have calculated it. But some of the loss may have been the result of bloggers like Lasica consciously deciding to boycott linking to the Times, even if they were able to read the columns in some fashion. “Starting today I will no longer do so, since I'm not a part of the Times' marketing machine.” Is he implying that anybody who links to content is marketing it? (It probably is if you say “Paul Krugman nails it” without adding your own twist.)

Part of the irrationality was manifest in the language used. Steve Outing of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies also referred to a “firewall” in the Boston Globe (“If you put them behind a firewall, they might disappear from those discussions.”) A firewall has a completely different connotation where the Internet is concerned. There most likely is a firewall at the Times and other news publishers to protect the internal network; this has nothing to do with what people have started calling a “paywall.”

If we accept the term paywall – a barrier to information based on a monetary arrangement – we need to start looking for them everywhere.

Wall-to-Wall Metaphors

The Times wasn't the only media to have content behind a paywall. All of cable televisision is behind a paywalland no one begrudged it (perhaps because Crooks and Liars and YouTube users spirited out enough video under the guise of “fair use”). The Spokane Spokesman-Review has been charging for its content for three years. There is not a single mention on the web of the Spokesman-Review's subscription model being called a paywall. D. F. Oliveria, an associated editor, and writer of the now award-winning Huckleberries Online blog, made mention of the NYT's “paywall” last month but neglected to mention his own paper's.

There is also a more effective barrier, the access wall. When I need to search for an article in an academic journal, the Boston Public Library conveniently has a subscription to the JSTOR database. If I can't get to the library physically, I may be lucky enough to get one of three remote logins to the database for library cardholders. That assumes the publication is in JSTOR, or any other reference database. A few months ago, I needed to search old issues of the Public Interest. I was thankful that Google Book Search had scanned them in, but I learned that they had fouled up the indexing; moreover, I saw that the the was abandoned in February 2005. In August, I wrote here and for PBS MediaShift about the gaps in searching video news archives.

These concerns touched a mere fraction of the audience fretting over the TimesSelect paywall. After all, normative blogging tends to link to what's popular. That's what puts Andrew Sullivan, Michelle Malkin, and Thomas Friedman at the top of the link pile. But the most popular blogs themselves, whether BoingBoing or Talking Points Memo, excel by linking to the obscure stuff. Josh Marshall has a subscription to the National Journal (and links to it) precisely for the fact that most of his readers don't. When Marshall amplified Trent Lott's comments about Strom Thurmond in 2002, he was able to uncover a 1984 interview that the then-Congressman gave to Southern Partisan magazine. The fact that there was nothing to link to didn't stop him from posting the damning quote on his blog (he did scan it in 3 days later).

Even if he hadn't scanned it in, Marshall's blog post would have been canonized as the primary digital source for anybody referencing it afterwards. (A few years ago, I tried to coin this phenomenon as the petrification of knowledge) That is to say that even if the original doesn't exist online, a proxy can be created, and be referenced instead. So it's irrational to blame the Times for supposedly removing the original links when the blogger has an opportunity to create a primary digital source.

The Link Boycotters

The above assumes that the blogger is citing responsibly. The first person I could find who deliberately didn't link to the Times because of TimesSelect was Peter Berger, a freelance journalist/writer in Brooklyn. On May 7, 2005, he blogged about a graffiti/mural of Pope John Paul II in New York City, which he'd read about in the Times. “I would love to have linked to the original Times story (written by Howard Kurtz) if it wasn’t for the fact that the Times idiots have put their archived stories behind a paywall.” Berger took a picture of it, and noted its location, in the Lower East Side. Had he linked to the original article of April 25, the readers would have seen a different mural, this one in East Harlem. The reporter, incidentally, was Steven Kurutz, not Howard Kurtz, who writes for the Washington Post.

A few months later, Berger contributed his first of twenty articles to the same “Times idiots.” He also softened his views on TimesSelect, conceding that he was a print subscriber, after all.

Certainly the TimesSelect link- boycott shouldn't have spread. For one, as academia believes in the free exchange of ideas, a boycott is an anathema (witness the harsh reactions to the proposed British boycott of Israeli universities). Secondly, the Times (rather belatedly) got around to supplying college students with free access. Thirdly, higher education remains the largest “paywall” to knowledge in America today.

Ann Althouse, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin since 1984, developed a popular following by starting a blog during the 2004 Presidential campaign. When TimesSelect sought a legal scholar to blog for them in April 2006, they passed over Althouse and other law professors; they chose Stanley Fish, a whirlwind through the Law and English departments of a number of American universities over the past five decades. Althouse noticed Fish's initial blog post, on Justice Scalia and originalism, and rather than consider his point, ranted that it wasn't a blog at all, since he didn't use a hyperlink within his piece, besides, she couldn't link back to him behind the paywall. But she did link to it. What Althouse didn't mention to her readers was that Fish's blog post, despite being locked in an “aquarium” as she too-cutely called it, had already attracted a hundred and thirty comments by the time she come upon it.

The point is not that Althouse boycotted the blog; in fact, she didn't, citing it a few more times over the subsequent year. But Fish never even as much as noticed Althouse's existence from his perch at the Times. That's closer to how the blogosphere really works. It's the pay-attention-wall, and it costs much more than fifty dollars a year in sweat equity to breach it.

Hitting the Links

There is a very practical reason for linking. Last June, Tom Friedman had recycled some silly little anecdote about bumping into a rude woman at an airport, and from that he drew a lesson about the loss of privacy and gain in transparency. I felt that he had blithely conflated two very different concepts, so I wrote a letter to his editors. Using Technorati, I looked for people who had linked to the column: I sought a conversation, after all. (Friedman's concerns over Internet privacy over the years are examined in Part 6.)

I had been working on a project regarding online reputation, and so a few days later I came across the blog of a senior executive at a major public relations firm. It turns out she had read the column as well, so she wrote a blog post of a few sentences of introduction before pasting in the entirety of the column. I sent her an email, asking her why she didn't give the link, since I was searching for posts linking to the column. She responded: “I don't know how I am supposed to link to those new york times special 'select' columns that you have to pay for.” Somehow, copying the whole column seemed to make more sense to her. [I haven't linked to her blog for ethical reasons: when I emailed her, I had no idea at the time that I needed a quote on-the-record for an article I'd write five months later. I didn't think it necessary now to ask for her release.]

She wasn't the only one; others made a cottage industry of it. Out of Missouri, the “Blue Girl, Red State” blogger created a blog ScrewSubWalls and began copying not just Times columns, but other newspaper stories, wholesale. For some reason the newspaper industry has not waged the sort of copyright battles that the music industry has. There may not be any sympathy for publishers, but are there no sympathies for authors? The blog evangelists often remark that the part of the value of a blog is in readers' comments. ScrewSubWalls also ended up screwing the comments as well, since they were never copied.

At least journalist and long-time blogger Ed Cone had the sense to respect the hyperlinks. When TimesSelect launched, he began blogging a summary about the Times columns. By the end of the month, he started calling it DarkTimes, a “daily roundup of the hidden matter in the NYT opinion universe.” He ultimately wrote 152 blog posts (some on his original blog) over the first fourteen months (after which he ran out of gas, writing 12 blog posts over the subsequent nine months.)

Many bloggers linked to Times articles, though many used special markers ($, reg required) to warn: free rider beware. Then again, the registration, and subscription fees, could also be indicative of the financial strength of the publication to stick around. In ten years, which links do you suppose will be around: those from the Times, or those from a blog specially set up to mock TimesSelect?

Ten years for an obscure blog is a long shot, considering that links from leading blogs have struggled to stick around for two years. In my search through Google's blog archives brought up some interesting conversations—and missing links.

  • In May 2005, Anil Dash, the first employee of the pioneering blog software company Six Apart, wrote a blog post on TimesSelect where he linked to a post by Meg Hourihan, the co-founder of the other pioneering blog software, Pyra Labs (bought by Google in 2003). Dash gave this link. But her post is here now on her other blog.

  • Michael Frasse, at that time the webmaster of Utne, referred to “an interactive case study of‘s migration from an open content model to a paid content model.” The interactive case study (a series of blog posts), from the American Press Institute's Media Center, was supposed to be here. The Internet archives suggest that it's here. The API's press release says here. The last post on the case study, from Gary Kebbel (then with EdWeek, and now with the Knight Foundation), archived here, concluded: “We have a lot more data to analyze, but we wanted to report that so far we are very pleased by what we are seeing.”

There are countless other examples. Robert Cox, the President of the Media Bloggers Association, had played a visible role in 2004 in pushing the Times to adopt a policy whereby Op-Ed columnists would publish their own corrections. But in May 2006 he shut down his personal blog and removed it from the web; even the shutdown notice only exists in the Internet archive (it had “too much right-of-center baggage” he conceded.) More links gone missing. Bob and I used to correspond; it was his blog, in 2005, which informed me about Ken Waight's TimesSelect crisis.

Decision Times

There were but a few cases I was familiar with where a reader had come to accept TimesSelect as a good thing worth paying for (aside from my own). Here are two of them.

Ken Waight produces the marvelously idiosyncratic Lying in Ponds, where he tallies the partisanship tendencies of national columnists. When TimesSelect was announced in May 2005, he didn't immediately leap to TimesRejector status; he paused to consider it, worrying, as many had, that the “significance” of the Times columnists would be reduced. I explained to him that by nature of his practice, he reads all sorts of columnist that I would never get around to reading, and that precisely is the service he provides. He is a broker of information, after all, and brokers tend to have all sorts of information their patrons don't. The top conservative partisan in his list is generally an anathema to most liberal-to-mainstream readers, from her offensive comments over the last decade. Still, due to Ken's inexhaustible reading, we learn that Ann Coulter has, in fact, written something positive about FDR once in the last year (he led us in WWII), in a column otherwise trashing current Democratic candidates.

While Ken fretted about the money, I offered to spot him the fifty bucks in May and then in September. (I was slow to the draw, and an anonymous donor  chipped in first.)

Another acceptor was Christopher Lydon, who had started his journalism career at the Times before becoming a regular voice in Boston's public broadcasting world. His program Radio Open Source on WGBH devoted a show to TimesSelect a few weeks after the launch. ROS was innovative in its carrying on a discussion thread online during the broadcast; one such user went so far as to set up a user with the handle “willnotpaynyt.” Noticing my acceptance for TimesSelect, asked me whether I was a “plant” from the newspaper. Lydon, for his part, said at the start of the program he would weigh his decision through the hour-long broadcast. “Of course I knew I was going to pay $50 for my TimesSelect,” he wrote afterwards. “And there would be a certain Red Feather satisfaction in paying a little more for the Times anyway–like giving to your local library or, yes, to public broadcasting.”

Jay Rosen of New York University, a guest on the program, offered similar support with skepticism: “Frankly, I wish them luck. I think it's important that our news organizations develop new sources of revenue. I'm concerned for their survival.” Yet his students didn't get the message. When Rosen assigned his Journalism 101 class to rate the blogs at the top 100 newspapers, they fessed up in an afternote that TimesSelect's charging was “one reason the New York Times didn’t make our best blog picks.”

There was a moral issue that Lydon brought up on the show that was somewhat novel: the Op-Ed columnists were now at the mercy of the business managers. This was a fair point: only a few years before, Lydon and producer Mary McGrath had parted with WBUR in a disagreement over the ownership of The Connection, a show which they had originated for the station. Would Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman, and David Brooks have abandoned ship to assert their independence? They bit the bullet and stuck around; perhaps because they knew what we know now: that their buzz didn't vanish overnight.

A month ago, when I started working on this series, I asked on Doc Searls's blog whether the critics were conflating the moral arguments with the business arguments. Doc agreed, and explained: “For what it’s worth, my main case against locking up archives has been a business one and not a moral one.” Another commenter agreed.

Among Jeff Jarvis, Dan Gillmor, Jay Rosen, and many other bloggers, nobody provided any detailed financial numbers to examine the business decision at all. The basic argument, as media consultant Vin Crosbie wrote was this: “the exercise effectively prevented the more than 12 million registered users of the site from accessing the Opinions section or archives sections for two years.”

Prevented. Fifty dollars a year is less than ninety-five million Americans pay for cable a month. It was not 12 million readers, but more likely 1 million who exercised their free choice not to subscribe. If only the complaints about the cost of cable were able to bring down that paywall as effectively as it did the Times's.

We're going to dive in and do what few have done publicly: look at the financial numbers and analyze TimesSelect from a business perspective.