< Natural Selection

Transcript

Friday, September 21, 2007

BOB GARFIELD:
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And I'm Brooke Gladstone. If you were one of the 227,000 paying subscribers to The New York Times online service called TimesSelect¸ well, you are no more - paying, that is. Initiated two years ago, TimesSelect placed online access to some content, notably Op-Ed columns, behind a pay wall.

But very early Wednesday morning, you received an email - mine began, "Dear Home Delivery Subscriber" - informing you that the pay wall would be dismantled, effective immediately. Those emails were signed by nytimes.com general manager Vivian Schiller, who says there were two main reasons for the charge. First, millions of people now use sites like Google News to look for information on the Web, and if you charge for content those millions of people can't find you - or your ads.
VIVIAN SCHILLER:
But in addition to that, in the last two years we ourselves dramatically improved something that is called SEO, Search Engine Optimization, and that's basically what you do with the data around your articles, the metadata, and the way that you tag your articles so that search engines can find them.

So as a result of improvements in search engine optimizations, our articles rank much, much higher than they ever did before. And, in fact, our overall audience, just as a result of our SEO, has grown in the last two years by 133 percent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Now, some of your big-time Op-Ed columnists - Nick Christoff, Thomas Friedman, I think Maureen Dowd, spoke out publicly against the pay wall, saying, in effect, that it was alienating too many readers.
VIVIAN SCHILLER:
Yeah, Tom Friedman in particular was vocal and was concerned about losing a lot of his international readers who wouldn't have access to TimesSelect and would be cut off from his content.

And certainly we were unhappy that they were unhappy about that, and, of course, we want our columnists to be read by the largest audience around the world as possible. But at the end of the day, this was a business decision.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And in addition to liberating the Op-Ed columnists, you've also freed up much of the archives, so I have to assume you crunched those numbers and figured out that selling ads on old articles was more lucrative than charging readers for them.
VIVIAN SCHILLER:
Yeah, absolutely. In fact, we've opened up two huge chunks of our archive. The first is 1987 to the present, which really accounts for the bulk of what people look for, the last 20 years. But we've also opened up our archive from 1851, which is when The New York Times was founded, to 1922. Why 1922? That was the last year before copyright laws went into effect.

So, in fact, 1851 to 1922, which has got a lot of cool stuff, including coverage of the Civil War and the Titanic, is now available for free because it belongs to the public. It's the public domain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And in between 1922 and '87?
VIVIAN SCHILLER:
And in between, some of that is available for free, like our movie reviews. We've opened all of that up for free. The rest of it is something that our readers can buy either in a single- or a multi-article pack.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Have you come to the conclusion that pay walls just don't work? I mean, we've heard rumors that Rupert Murdoch is thinking of taking down the pay wall around The Wall Street Journal Online.
VIVIAN SCHILLER:
Yeah, that's true, and we're very flattered that he's looking to follow our lead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] Has he sent you flowers?
VIVIAN SCHILLER:
Yes, yes. I'm still waiting for those flowers to come. They're not quite here yet. [BROOKE LAUGHS]

You know, I think for certain niche publishers perhaps the pay wall still works, sites that, you know, have real-time financial data. I know ESPN has some pay services, and those seem to work for them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Did it occur to you that there are just certain things that people won't want to pay for? I mean, people will pay for porn but they won't pay for Thomas Friedman.
VIVIAN SCHILLER:
I just want to dispute that, because actually people did pay for it. We had close to three-quarters of a million TimesSelect subscribers, but 225,000 of them paid us. TimesSelect did work, however, in the long haul, just the growth of advertising revenue versus the kind of single-digit growth that we would find in subscription revenue is going to keep us in business longer so that we can keep hiring more reporters and keep covering news of the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You know, some people who predicted the end of TimesSelect are now celebrating, in a sense. For example, Jeff Jarvis, who blogs at BuzzMachine, wrote this week, and I quote, "It was a cynical act, doomed from the start. With it goes any hope of charging for content online. Content is now and forever free.”
VIVIAN SCHILLER:
[LAUGHS] Yeah. We love Jeff. Jeff has been on us about TimesSelect for a while, and that's fine. I wouldn't call it cynical. I think on the contrary, we believe strongly in our social mission. You know, we have bureaus all over the world. We have the largest presence in Baghdad. How can we continue to support that kind of journalism if we can't pay it? This is not cynicism. This is about pursuing that journalistic mission.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You know, someone on our staff is now thinking of dropping his subscription because he can read The Times entirely online.
VIVIAN SCHILLER:
Well, yes, and there may be some that do that. But you know what? We can't force behavior on people. We have to provide our content in the way that consumers want it, and if we lose a newspaper subscription, then so be it. But you can't force change. You can't work against the tide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Vivian, thank you very much.
VIVIAN SCHILLER:
Sure. I enjoyed it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Vivian Schiller is senior vice president and general manager of nytimes.com.