Earth to Newspapers: Abandon Fort Business.

I just got this email from The New York Times:

Dear TimesSelect Subscriber,

We are ending TimesSelect, effective today.

The Times’s Op-Ed and news columns are now available to everyone free of charge, along with Times File and News Tracker. In addition, The New York Times online Archive is now free back to 1987 for all of our readers.

Why the change?

Since we launched TimesSelect, the Web has evolved into an increasingly open environment. Readers find more news in a greater number of places and interact with it in more meaningful ways. This decision enhances the free flow of New York Times reporting and analysis around the world. It will enable everyone, everywhere to read our news and opinion – as well as to share it, link to it and comment on it.

We thank you for your support of TimesSelect, and hope you continue to enjoy The New York Times in all its electronic and print forms.

The spin here is that times have changed while The Times has not. This is worse than misleading. It’s delusional. Yes, “the Web has evolved”. But it had already evolved to a state where charging for archival editorial was a bad idea, long before Times Select was created. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bloggers and smart publishing professionals had the clues, and kindly passed them along to the Times, which chose instead to remain insular and clueless.

Is it still? Follow the money. The “evolution” that matters here is the rise in the advertising money river, which now flows away from traditional media and into the Google Sea. As that river rises past flood stage, newspapers stand in its midst, guarding their precious “content” within dungeons behind paywalls, peering down from the parapets as the flood fills the moats and washes the foundations away.

For insight into the mentality behind paywall maintenance, read this, from David Weinberger’s Hyperlinks Subvert Hierarchy chapter in The Cluetrain Manifesto (written more than eight years ago):

Inside Fort Business

Somewhere along the line, we confused going to work with building a fort.

Strip away the financial jibber-jabber and the management corpo-speak, and here’s our fundamental image of business:

  • It’s in an imposing office building that towers over the landscape.
  • Inside is everything we need.
  • And that’s good because the outside is dangerous. We are under siege by our competitors, and even by our partners and customers. Thank God for the thick, high walls!
  • The king rules. If we have a wise king, we prosper.
  • The king has a court. The dukes, viscounts, and other subluminaries each receive their authority from the king. (The king even countenances an official fool. Within limits.)
  • We each have our role, our place. If we each do the job assigned to us by the king’s minions, our fort will beat all those other stinking forts.
  • And then we will have succeeded — or, thinking it’s the same thing, we will say we have “won.” We get to dance a stupid jig while chanting “Number one! Number one!”

This fort is, at its heart, a place apart. We report there every morning and spend the next eight, ten, or twelve hours inaccessible to the “real” world. The portcullis drops not only to keep out our enemies, but to separate us from distractions such as our families. As the drawbridge goes up behind us, we become businesspeople, different enough from our normal selves that when we first bring our children to the office, they’ve been known to hide under our desk, crying.

Within this world, the Web looks like a medium that exists to allow Fort Business to publish online marketing materials and make credit card sales easier than ever. Officially, this point of view is known as “denial.”

The Web isn’t primarily a medium for information, marketing, or sales. It’s a world in which people meet, talk, build, fight, love, and play. In fact, the Web world is bigger than the business world and is swallowing the business world whole. The vague rumblings you’re hearing are the sounds of digestion.

The change is so profound that it’s not merely a negation of the current situation. You can’t just put a big “not” in front of Fort Business and say, “Ah, the walls are coming down.” No, the true opposite of a fort isn’t an unwalled city.

It’s a conversation.

As anybody who has ever tried to get a letter to the editor of the Times can tell you, the paper is not conversational. And hell, maybe it shouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean it can’t, or shouldn’t, at least listen.

It’s time for the Times (and other papers) to put their ears, rather than just their walls, to the ground.

[Later...] Rob Paterson nails it on the subject of both relationships and what’s really scarce. Good stuff.

15 comments

  1. Jon Garfunkel’s avatar

    re: “But it had already evolved to a state where charging for archival editorial was a bad idea…”

    I have started writing a long response to most of the TimesSelect grave-dancing I’ve been reading. I’m not done yet, but I’ll give a sneak preview, and try to engage some conversation to help me articulate some points.

    One of my premises is that it appears that commenters are conflating moral sense with business sense.
    Yes, charging for archives may be a idea to the morals of “information wants to be free.” (“But information also wants to be expensive…” as Stewart Brand said and wrote.)

    But financially, it may work. It *is* the business model for periodical archive service High Beam Research, for which your Cluetrain co-author Chris Locke is the Chief Blogging Officer (or had been; his last blog post in that capacity was from March.) To my sense of ethics, I’d rather have the opportunity to pay for an archived article than none at all.

    There’s been a lot of other assumptions thrown around, too– that the Times, and its Op-Ed columnists would lose *influence* over the two years of this experiment. It’s a nice hypothesis, but I don’t think any evidence of this has been presented. I keep an open mind: if there is evidence, I’d like to see it.

    I’d also like to hear from the grave-dancers whether they were NYT subscribers, or did they purchased TimesSelect, whether they read more or less of the Op-Ed columnists, whether they read any of the public-figure-bloggers that the Times took on…

  2. CCUCEO’s avatar

    Newspapers: Tear down that wall…

    I’m hearing Reagan’s famous line…Tear down that wall…! after reading Doc Searl’s post, Earth to Newspapers: Abandon Fort Business. Newspapers still charging for content: Resistance is futile. Why? You limit your audience. You kill the conversati…

  3. george girton’s avatar

    I am thrilled to see TimesSelect come back on line, because it means I re-assert my intentionality when I avoid reading David Brooks, who I consider to be an inferior thinker.

    Jibes aside, I did not subscribe to Times Select, and personally wrote emails to all of the columnists behind the wall (including Brooks) saying how sorry I was (except in his case) that i would no longer be reading their columns. I didn’t expect any reply (if they were writing for the LA Times, they probably would have written back) and received none.

    Occasionally I would read the odd Krugman column that made its way to truthout.org, and read some other stuff there, so TimesSelect benefitted that other opinion aggregator.

    Now that the columnists have returned, I’m glad. Gail Collins is a superb writer, thinker, and framer of issues, and being able to read and forward her columns, which I read in the print edition of the paper, is an advantage not to be dismissed lightly.

  4. vanderleun’s avatar

    They can bring em out. They can put em back in. They can throw em over their shoulder like a Continental soldier.

    It…. won’t….. stop…. the… rot.

    As long as they keep the NYT attitude front and center — and hey that attitude has nothing, but nothing, to do with “a coversation” — they will continue to sink.

    Check the position — notof the stock — but of the bonds and the debt levels.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Jon,

    Indeed, there is a lot of conflation and confusion going on. I think you’re right to flag the need for a distinction between moral and business arguments for locking or unlocking archives. For what it’s worth, my main case against locking up archives has been a business one and not a moral one. Note that my ‘money river’ metaphor was all about business and not about morality. I think it’s a simple fact that papers can get far more business leverage out of exposed archives than out of locked-up ones. And that this was already apparent back when the Times made the decision to create Times Select.

    I also think your “grave dancing” label is a bit misleading, at least in cases such as mine, Dan Gillmor’s and Jeff Jarvis’s. it was extremely frustrating at the time to see this first-rank newspaper make a plainly bad business decision — one which, not surprisingly, had a great deal of bad influence on other papers. (And i mean “bad” in the business rather than the moral sense.) What each of us feels now is not vindication or cause for glee (note that I declined Rex Hammock’s invitation to gloat), but rather of relief from a persistent source of exasperation about one paper’s practice that was a terrible model for the rest of its industry.

    Back to the business issue. It’s important to note that the leverage of archive exposure is also non-trivial quite aside from the Google AdSense advantage. What I wrote here comparing the News Press of Fort Myers to the News-Press of Santa Barbara also makes the business case for exposed archives. The former exposed theirs at the time, while the latter did not — and the difference in lookup results was immense. By locking up their archives, newspapers exclude themselves from searches concerning the very regions they serve. This is a major disadvantage for them.

    For your piece (which I eagerly await) I also encourage you to consider the price papers pay for exposing their current editorial, for which they charge their daily newsstand customers and subscribers. I think the case for locking up current editorial (to protect paid circulation) still needs to be made. “Charging for the news and giving away the olds” online maps exactly to what papers do offline. The problem with “charge for the news and give away the olds” is that the model costs papers much if not all of their current online advertising income. Could they do that? I wonder.

    If daily papers (and, for that matter, magazines) give away both current and archival editorial (which will probably happen, if other papers follow the New York Times’ example), their business model will be little different than their free competitors, with the single exception that the daily papers charge for the physical product. Here in Boston, the Globe and the Phoenix would be on equal footing, at least online. It’s not what the Globe would like, I am sure, but there it is.

    In any case, I think we are all on more solid ground talking about the choices in business terms rather than in moral ones — even as we admit that the moral ones do matter.

  6. Jon Garfunkel’s avatar

    Doc,

    Thanks, that’s a good start.

    As for grave-dancing and moral arguments, these are tough calls, of course, but it’s clear that the commenters to blogs like yours certainly demonstrate a lot more passion on this issue.

    Also, I’m very familiar with the Fort Myers News-Press, I have spoken to a number of people down there about some of the civic activism which Gannett Co. has been given a lot of unquestioned praise for in the cit media circles; in fact, and one of my sources has been begging me to publish already. But I’m afraid your quick tally Google searches from last November doesn’t really meet the level of evidence I’m looking for.

    There are a few assumptions about Google search results that people have been making that I will address. I have noticed that the Times was very circumspect in the reasons they gave. I will report tonight.

    Jon

  7. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    Fort Business sounds very much like how Broadcom operates. They have a bluetooth keyboard controller with an 8051 core. Do they thrust the firmware at everyone who can possible put their chip into a design? Do they flood the airwaves with the chip’s technical information? No, you need an NDA for the latter, and you need to execute a license (the terms of which I’m unaware, since they’ve never found me worthy of even considering me for a license.)

    Fort Business. Because the Competition is out there, pretending to be one of your Customers. The only way to keep them out is to attack your Customers.

  8. Hal O'Brien’s avatar

    Jon, the moral issue has nothing to do with it. TimesSelect was always a bad idea, looked at in cold business terms.

    As I wrote at the time, in May 2005 when it was announced:

    “This is a colossally stupid business move, and it appears the Times knows it. Because I can’t figure out why they wouldn’t go and implement it today if they had any confidence at all. Running it as a trial balloon until September shows how uncertain they are.”

    “So, what will the end result for the Times be? Marginally more bucks from a devoted few, while the vast bulk of their readers stop visiting them. Which doesn’t just cut their revenue stream from subscriptions, but will cut their current banner ad revenues. It will also make their Op-Ed writers less relevant, by taking away some of the bully-ness of their pulpit.

    Fewer readers, less revenues, less prestige. Not often one sees a trifecta like that.”

    To answer your own questions:

    “whether they were NYT subscribers…”
    No.
    “…or did they purchased TimesSelect,…”
    No.
    “… whether they read more or less of the Op-Ed columnists,…”
    Considerably less — I used to read them multiple times a week, and then stopped entirely when TimesSelect started.
    “…whether they read any of the public-figure-bloggers that the Times took on…”
    Anyone in particular in mind? Because I’m not sure who you mean here. (Which probably means, “No,” but I’d like to be certain.)

  9. Jon Garfunkel’s avatar

    Doc and readers– sleep got the better of me last night while I was deep in my data. I should have something ready tonight. Thanks for your comments.

    Hal– the Times started pressing a slew of public figures/public intellectuals (Dick Cavett, Stanley Fish) into blogging roles, for TimesSelect readers. now they are available to all.

  10. Perceptive Travel Blog » Blog Archive » A treasure trove opens’s avatar

    [...] much hoopla and “it’s about time,” the venerable US newspaper The New York Times has stopped charging for most of its content [...]

  11. Business » Earth to Newspapers: Abandon Fort Business.’s avatar

    [...] » Yes people will listen » business|bytes|genes|molecules wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptWithin this world, the Web looks like a medium that exists to allow Fort Business to publish online marketing materials and make credit card sales easier than ever. Officially, this point of view is known as “denial.” … [...]

  12. Hal O'Brien’s avatar

    “Hal– the Times started pressing a slew of public figures/public intellectuals (Dick Cavett, Stanley Fish) into blogging roles, for TimesSelect readers.”

    Ah. Then no, I would never have read them (though I was intrigued by the Cavett titles that would go by on the Times’ front page). Being behind the TimesSelect pay wall, they might as well have been writing in the South China Morning Post in Chinese, as far as I was concerned.

  13. tech news blog » Linkpost | 9.20.2007’s avatar

    [...] Earth to Newspapers: Abandon Fort Business — Earth to Doc Searles: Many of us already have. Also Gems from the archive of the New York [...]

  14. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Just a kind of data point…

    Even before Times Select was announced, word leaked from back channels that the decision was a polical compromise between the editorial, publishing and circulation departments. For whatever reasons, circulation won. The result was not ideal by anybody’s reckoning, but the Times put lipstick on it, and it worked, to some degree. A quarter million people subscribed.

    It’s clear now that publishing (the money side of the paper) is winning, with editorial (I am sure) going along.

    The difference between early 2005 and today is that the Times today recognizes the money to be made from advertising on everything (archives as well as current “content”), while they didn’t see that in the first place. Or chose not to see it. Either way, follow the money.

    The question now is whether the Times cheapens its daily print edition value by giving away online what print subscribers pay hard cash for. I suggest that the answer is yes. And that, in the long run, we will save a lot of trees while cheapening a great (literal) newspaper.

    Unless, that is, a way can be found for readers to pay online for some kind of relationship with the Times. I think it can, but that’s another thread.

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