A Dinosaur Wades into the Tar Pit

One of the great joys of the Internet is watching the migration of “value” from private islands of proprietary content to open platforms available to everyone. If your content isn’t readily available to the global network of Internet users (because you require payment or permission), chances are you’re on a fast train to oblivion. As Siva Vaidhyanathan has put it (with apologies to Oscar Wilde), “On the Internet, the only thing worse than being sampled is not being sampled.” Welcome to the world of “network effects.”

With characteristic hubris, however, The New York Times thinks it can buck the apparent laws of network economics and make people PAY to read its eight Op-ed page columnists online. The Times recently announced a new program, TimesSelect, which requires you to pay $7.95 a month or $49.95 a year in order to read its proprietary punditry. (To sweeten the deal, the paper throws in some multi-media and interactive content, and access to its archives.)

The Times is free to do what it wants, of course. But if it thinks it’s going to enhance its influence and prestige by making people PAY to read its columnists — half of whom are insufferable ideologues that I’d pay the Times to fire — it’s simply set itself up for another embarrassment. The paper that gave us Jayson Blair, saber-rattling pre-war reporting, and Judith Miller now tells us that we have to pay to read Thomas Friedman, John Tierney and David Brooks online. Puh-leeze.

The hilarious thing is, everyone but the Times seems to realize that its pay-for-punditry scheme (as Mickey Kaus has called it) is destined to fail. Either the number of subscribers will be so modest that it will be rescinded at some point (prompting further institutional embarrassment), or the Times columnists will lose their visibility and clout. Hasn’t Punch Sulzberger read his own columnist? Thomas Friedman tells us that the world is flat. Internet users have real choices — including back-channel forms of access.

One enterprising fellow, John Tabin, a contributor to the American Spectator, has started the “ Never Pay Retail” project, which posts web links to Times’ columnists when they appear somewhere else a few days later. This is not hard to do because the Times’ columnists are syndicated, and so the op-ed columns appear in scores of newspapers around the country.

But imagine for a moment that the NYT is successful at shutting down Tabin’s site and plugging every imaginable “leak” of its columns. TimesSelect seems to think that this is still the 1960s, and everyone absolutely MUST read Scotty Reston to know what’s going on in Washington. The far more likely scenario is that people will simply tune into to other commentators — and frankly, that’s fantastic.

At bottom, the Times fails to understand the networked culture. As blogger Mickey Kaus wrote recently:

A few days ago I jokingly called for replacing TimesSelect with “TimesDelete,” a service that would allow readers to pay to silence their least favorite columnists. D.A.‘s email has made me realize how misdirected this proposal was. TimesSelect doesn’t need to be replaced by TimesDelete. TimesSelect is TimesDelete! The Times has taken the columnists people are most willing to pay for and removed them from the public discourse on the Web….

Hey, the Times is a great paper. I read the paper version every day. But I am grateful that the Internet is turning the paper’s arrogant dominance of political culture into an anachronism…with the active complicity of the Times itself!