Last Wednesday was a historic day for the World Wide Web. It saw the keystone of pay-to-view Internet news pulled from its snug position on top, leaving the other bricks in the arch ready to tumble at any moment.
The New York Times officially pulled the plug on TimesSelect, its paid online subscription to view certain op-eds, archives and other premium content, on Wednesday, Sept. 19. The move to make nytimes.com free came two years (almost to the day) after the program was implemented with much fanfare in 2005. TimesSelect was, by most accounts, successful. It had about 787,400 subscribers and made about $10 million in subscription revenue each year. In April of 2006, Times Digital Editor Leonard Apcar told Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune that TimesSelect was a "home run." Why pull it now?
Follow the money, of course.
With the use of Google News and other news aggregates and search engines, the New York Times (and by extrapolation, every news daily in the world) has seen a major increase in what the Web industry calls unique visitors—a Web user who visits a certain site maybe once in the course of a month. It's not one unique visitor that has made the Times rethink its Web strategy, it's millions. The move from paid to free opens nytimes.com to more Web traffic, and more Web traffic means more ad revenue. "Site traffic" is the new "print circulation."
Rupert Murdoch knows it. His recent acquisition of Dow Jones & Co. and with it the Wall Street Journal, has put him in the position to change the dealings at one of the Internet's most successful pay-to-view news sources: wsj.com. While Murdoch hasn't flat-out said he'll make the Wall Street Journal online free to everyone with an Internet connection (it currently costs $99 a year to view), all signs point to yes. Don't be fooled into thinking Murdoch is all about freedom of information and disseminating knowledge to the masses—it's all about the revenue, and if wsj.com goes free, there's one less brick at the top of the arch holding it together.
Somewhere near the bottom of the rickety brick structure is our hometown Albuquerque Journal. The Journal is one of the few sticking to its convictions by requiring either a paid subscription or ad viewing to gain access to its online content. Its sister paper, the Albuquerque Tribune, however, proudly displays its content for free, making it the favorite site for local blog links and daily perusal. Despite speculation, the Tribune's free Web content has nothing to do with its pending sale status. If anything, its website is one thing that could make the Trib an appealing buy.
The real worry is what will happen to the Journal's convictions if the Trib falls. Without another local daily offering free content on its website, the Journal will have even less reason to open up its digital pages. No competition for ad revenue, no need to increase traffic. Everyone who wants to read a story at abqjournal.com will have to pay. Without the Trib, the Journal will sit like a stubborn brick at the bottom of a crumbling arch, while the Web-reading masses will visit the Santa Fe New Mexican for the latest Lobo coverage.