The NYT goes cash for comment

by John Quiggin on May 21, 2005

ViaTimothy Noah at Slate, I learn that the NYT is going to start charging for access to its opinion columns. It’s not clear whether, and how, bloggers will be exempted from this – the NYT provides blog access to the archives (otherwise pay-per-view) through its RSS feeds

Speaking as a reader, I wouldn’t want to pay for the NYT Op-Ed page. The Editorials are worthy, but not very exciting. Of the columnists, only Krugman is consistently excellent, and most of his columns consist of necessary repetition of important truths well-informed readers are aware of, but most commentators are unwilling to harp on for fear of being called “shrill”. But Brad DeLong is equally good, takes a similar line, posts more frequently, and is free. Kristof, like the little girl in the rhyme, is very, very good when he’s good, but that’s not always. And Herbert is steadily good, if sometimes overly earnest. After that, there’s a long tail, with columns more often useful for mockery than for endorsement.

As a blogger, there’s no point in paying for something if you can’t link to it. That’s why the WSJ is so thoroughly marginalised in the blog world. So unless the NYT finds a way around this, they’ll be cutting themselves off from one of the most active parts of the public debate, and missing out on quite a few potential readers.

{ 20 comments }

1

Michael Harris 05.21.05 at 5:23 am

You can get Krugman here, reasonably promptly updated too.

http://www.pkarchive.org/

2

RSL 05.21.05 at 6:46 am

I was initially disappointed with the NYT’s decision to start charging for content. After some reflection, though, I’ve decided that I’m going to go ahead and subscribe. Here’s why:

In my opinion, the biggest problem with the American media is the decline in good reporting.

This decline is primarily due, I believe, to the poor economics of reporting: it is extremely expensive to send reporters to remote areas of the world and feed and shelter them while they search for stories. Even when they find a story, it’s only rarely that the story will be interesting enough to fill much space for very long, and so the return is often disproportional to the investment.

It is far cheaper to let others discover the “popular” story and just bring in a few talking heads from some think tank to argue about it.

Arguments and opinion are what sells best, anyway. Factual news just doesn’t hold an audience’s interest long enough to build the kind of ratings that advertisers will pay for.

Investigative reporting can produce controversy–which is sometimes good for ratings, but which can also alienate image-wary advertisers.

The American media has become increasingly corporate and the bottom line is what counts.

For all of the above reasons, the American news media is cutting back on reporting. The NYT is a notable exception. (Blogs are great for opinion, but are not yet an adequate replacement for the MSM when it comes to real reporting.)

If we want to preserve the NYT’s ability to report the news, we need to help them stay economically viable.

For all the above reasons, I will go ahead and pay to read the NYT’s editorial pages, even though I agree with John that those pages are not that interesting. I consider my subscription akin to my contributions to NPR and PBS–something of a charitable contribution to help keep a valuable institution afloat.

However, I hope the NYT’s need to make money from their editorial pages will help them improve those pages. Right now, the only columnist I read regularly is Krugman. Herbert has become my second favorite, mostly because of his strong stance against torture and illegal detention. Rich is often very good, but he appears only once a week. The rest are bad: Freedman has become an embarassment, I think. Dowd is okay at times, but lately she seems to be writing about herself as much as the issues. Brooks seems to be stretching for a topic all the time. Tierney hasn’t caught my interest yet. Does Kristol ever write anything anymore? If there are others, I’ve forgotten them, so they aren’t making much of an impact.

3

Phil 05.21.05 at 8:13 am

I have the same problem with the Independent. Why on earth would I pay for stuff that they want me to know?

4

malcolm 05.21.05 at 8:49 am

The news about special Times content — not just the OP/ED but also Floyd Norris et al — hit me
hard. I have a subscription to the NYT so I
won’t be affected. However, I have my students reading Krugman –and Daniel Altman, Ana Bernasek and…- and I won’t force them to
pay for the privelidge of the Times. I’ve switched them over to Bloomsberg’s commentators where they can read John Berry.

5

David Weman 05.21.05 at 9:34 am

rsl, you’ll pay for opinion to encorage them to prioritize reporting? problematic.

why not for example buy a niece a regular subscription?

6

Michael Turner 05.21.05 at 9:51 am

“It is far cheaper to let others discover the “popular” story and just bring in a few talking heads from some think tank to argue about it.”

Nothing new. Henry Luce discovered this, when he invented Time magazine. (A species of “they report, WE decide”, given Luce’s general conservatism.) In its early years, Time consisted of little more than an office that subscribed to a lot of newspapers, staff who clipped stories, editors who decided what news Time would talk about, and writers working with these secondary sources.

Blogging is kind of atomization of this Time-honored (heh, sorry!) editorial strategy. Sure, blogging is more immediate and more focused — you get *daily* Juan Cole, talking about what Juan Cole usually talks about. But Cole ultimately feeds off real journalism plus some think-tank research. And those sources ultimately feed off the efforts of those who make phone calls, appointments, library visits and international flights, only to surrender their “hard news” prose to editors and fact-checkers.

If there’s anyone rejoicing over NYT op-eds going paid, it’s probably Ariana Huffington. If there’s a real loss in going only to blogs, however, it’s the impact that comes with a wordcount budget and tight editing. Yes, Brad Delong is a Virtual Paul Krugman for Free. But you get what you pay for, and what you get with Free Brad is a certain amount of bloviating and occasional rhetorical sloppiness (as when he recently called Gunter Grass a “crypto-Nazi”, which I find very hard to imagine him doing in print.)

Editing and wordcount budgets really are worth something. Krugman once wrote that his little “second career” in op-eds and Salon pieces made him realize that writing a good essay for a general readership was harding than writing an econ paper. I’m sure length limits are part of what made it difficult for him, though I don’t think he specifically mentioned them. I’m grateful that he still considers writing for general audiences (only to be forced to delete quite a few words) worth his time.

Then there’s just … writing well. Not to mention avoiding self-absorption. I agree that Dowd, Kristof and Friedman seem to have let their op-ed styles go to seed. Aside from Krugman, the best op-eds recently in the International Herald Tribune are the non-regulars: people who know their own fields well, who can write clearly, and who have something important to say. Unfortunately, you start into those pieces not knowing what style or attitude you’ll be tangling with, and that can be uncomfortable; you feel like your intellect’s dentures had better be pretty strongly glued to the gums. (I play a little game with myself sometimes: how far can I get into an opinion piece without skipping to the end to discover the writer’s affiliations?)

Being an op-ed regular gives you brand power, a conditioning of reader expectations. That’s something blogging has in spades. But who was it who said “style is the perfection of a point of view”? There’s the danger: as a blogger, freed of the legwork, able to focus on honing style, you can keep readers coming back for the stylistic infotainment even when you’re *perfectly* wrong.

Cass Sunstein says that part of the value of a free press is that it regularly confronts readers with irritants, with risks to their comfortable worldviews. And why shouldn’t it? No point of view is perfect, except perhaps stylistically. If you’re regularly confronting readers with irritants, tight packaging and good quality control really start to matter. If NYTop-ed.com makes money, that’s what they’ll really be selling.

7

David Sucher 05.21.05 at 9:52 am

The Editorial/Op-Ed page on the NYT is shallow, second-rate. Businesses don’t get better by being given money when they are doing a poor job.

8

albert 05.21.05 at 10:00 am

I’m sorry, did you say Brad DeLong is equally good to Paul Krugman. Excuse me while I vomit in disbelief.

9

European 05.21.05 at 10:27 am

I shall be sorry to miss Krugman (though he’ll probably be reprinted elsewhere)
, but the fact that all the others, particularly Friedman, are going to become increasingly irrelevant is actually pleasant to contemplate. No way would I pay even a single dollar to support a corrupt, imperialistic newspaper like the NYT, even if the quality of their product were infinitely better. Let them charge and see how far it will get them – probably a useful reality check.

10

nick 05.21.05 at 11:05 am

I suspect that the cost of litigation, should the NYT attempt to enforce its copyright against those reprinting op-eds (or against the BugMeNot people) will take a big wodge of those $50 subs.

11

RSL 05.21.05 at 12:12 pm

You’ll pay for opinion to encorage them to prioritize reporting? problematic.

I’m sure they’re charging for opinion rather than the news because they think opinion will sell and the news won’t. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s probably a realistic assessment of the market. I think the fact that they’re leaving the news “free” actually reflects a rather idealistic commitment to the importance of hard news, as well as some continuing pride in the role of the NYT as the “paper of record.” (I know there are probably business reasons to keep part of the website free as well, but having met some of the folks who work at the Times, I do believe the idealism is still there, too.)

Why not for example buy a niece a regular subscription?

Good suggestion . . . I actually have a niece in college who’s a perfect candidate . . .

12

abb1 05.21.05 at 12:35 pm

What about Max Sawicky – isn’t he better than DeLong? I think he’s much better.

13

Anarch 05.21.05 at 12:45 pm

That’s why the WSJ is so thoroughly marginalised in the blog world.

That, and the fact that their op-ed page is batshit insane.

14

Daniel 05.21.05 at 2:40 pm

I would actually pay money (on Sirenic grounds) for a globally installed solution that made it impossible for me to read a column by Thomas Friedman. So the fact that the NYT is providing me with one for free is good news indeed.

15

Milton Keynes 05.21.05 at 3:15 pm

I don’t agree that BDL is a cheaper version of Krugman.

Phil is right… It’s like being asked to watch a party political broadcast on pay-per-view.

16

John Quiggin 05.21.05 at 3:36 pm

“That, and the fact that their op-ed page is batshit insane.”

And you think this would marginalise them in the blog world?

17

Luis Villa 05.21.05 at 5:53 pm

I personally think that the NYT should basically make people pay for any pages of any article after the first (or maybe the second). They’d still get lots of hooks in people (good advertising); they have plenty of shorter articles and op-ed pieces that would be free; and the longer reportage (that I agree completely is worth paying for/subsidizing somehow) would still require payment.

18

John Quiggin 05.21.05 at 6:01 pm

I like Max Sawicky also, but he’s less of a close substitute for Krugman.

19

Jon Moyer 05.21.05 at 8:12 pm

The selling point, for me, is not the op-eds — it’s what I take to be full access to their archives, which could be a lot of fun.

20

redfox 05.22.05 at 11:58 pm

I think another decent way for the Times to do pay-to-play, if they could make it work technologically and ensure that hacking the system was too difficult and/or that making the payment was relatively non-onerous and honor-bearing, would be to do a subscription service for outgoing links. I would pay to be able to make linkrot-protected links to any Times article (including the currently cursedly extra-protected food articles) from a domain of my choice.

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