September 18th, 2007

Free (Ad-Supported) Content Wins: Times Drops 'Select' Barrier

By Nat Ives
Advertising Age

WSJ Remains Only Major Daily to Charge for Online Access

After a two-year experiment with charging for content online, The New York Times is lifting the gates on Times Select and returning its website to a completely ad-supported model.

The move, effective tomorrow, restores free access to most Times columnists along with many articles, blogs, video, podcasts and archives going back to 1987. But its larger significance is a resounding victory for the idea that information wants to be free. It’s also a signal that the Times is taking seriously the prospect that Rupert Murdoch will drop access charges for most or all of The Wall Street Journal Online. The Journal is now the only major newspaper to insist on subscription fees for most of its online content.

Power of search engines
The Times introduced Times Select in September 2005 as a bid to wring subscription revenue from its website and simultaneously shore up its sales base in print, where ad rates remain much higher than they are online. It said yesterday that the power of search engines, which often drive traffic to the Times Online even when people looking for information don’t necessarily set out to find it, meant there was too much potential to pass up in free access underwritten by marketers.

“We are excited at the prospect of welcoming many new readers to NYTimes.com as a result of this decision,” Vivian Schiller, senior VP-general manager of the site, said in a statement. “Times Select brought new commentary and voices to the site, as well as an influx of subscription revenue. But the increasing dominance of search and other forms of referral have changed the equation. Allowing unfettered, free access to our opinion content and recent archives should enable us to drive readership and advertising.”

Abandoning paid barriers
This year is emerging as a watershed for that strategy, which was once seen as only part of a broader revenue play. So far in 2007, publishers have abandoned the paid ramparts at outlets including CNN, The Economist and The Financial Times. Salon raised prices on both its paid-subscription plans, but hiked them most on its ad-free edition.

“That was in recognition of the fact that there was more money to be made by reducing barriers to usage and selling advertising against that increased usage,” Chris Neimeth, VP-publisher at Salon, said in an interview last month.

The Times is ending its premium service with 227,000 paying subscribers, 471,200 people who got access as part of their print subscriptions and 89,200 college students and employees who signed up for free access. But it’s making the most of the decision: It said it has sold sponsorship ads to American Express starting tomorrow across The Content Formerly Known as Times Select.

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