File it under We-Told-You-So: Management at the NYT is preparing to shut down Times-Select, the company's $50-a-year paywall experiment. I don't feel like dancing on its grave, because the idea of paying for certain types of content shouldn't be lost, and Times-Select (in concept, anyway) came close to being that kind of product. But there's a message in this headline that's going to cause a lot of consternation around newspaper boardrooms.
The short history of most newspaper websites looks a lot like this: Excitement (1995-99); Disillusionment (1999); The Empire Strikes Back (2000-03); Blogs, Video, Mass Confusion and Slow Progress (2004-07). Next up: Panic and Fundamental Reconfiguration (2008-11). But I'm getting ahead of myself.
One of the primary media-company theories in the post-Disillusionment period was that early Web business plans were distorted by a sort of hippie-ish Web-culture altruism in which people came to expect that all content should be free. Many executives came to believe that their future on the Web would take place behind some kind of paywall, and that consumers would be conditioned to this hard reality by industry control. This was a dearly held belief founded on a fundamental misunderstanding of online media that nevertheless jibed smoothly with widespread attitudes within the media management class.
In many cases, the first step toward that goal was "heavy" registration, and newspaper sites across the country drank the Kool Aid in the first years of this decade. Combine that "register or go away" attitude with the average circulation director's outright hostility toward the Web edition and you'll understand the zeitgeist of The Empire Strikes Back period. Companies stopped treating their sites as charity cases and started demanding profits -- or at least the reasonable expectation of profits in the very near future.
To executives who dreamed of online subscription fees and the comfortable familiarity of a one-to-many distribution model, Times-Select was not only a shining city on a hill but a well-timed counter-argument to the read-write-Web voices of 2004-2005. The NYT's new plan to wall-off its most popular columnists came at the same moment that heretics within the industry were arguing (with much inconvenient evidence in their favor) for a very different (Web 2.0) type of future for newspaper sites.
Times-Select had a few things going for it, just as The WSJ's paywall had a logic that surpassed the market limits on generic paid-content news. But those attributes weren't applicable to metro newspapers. Charge for your online coverage of Anytown, USA, and three things will happen: 1. Traffic at the local TV station sites will spike; 2. Your smaller print-pub competition will get a boost for their Web sites; and 3. You'll encourage a whole new class of Web-only news operations to move into the vacuum you've created. It's simple economic logic, and yet the industry's desire for a paid-content future remained so overwhelmingly strong that Times-Select stood for two years as a symbol for the Big Media Alternative to a small media future.
Let's hope that the demise of the Times-Select experiment puts to rest a lot of institutional biases operating as poorly conceived theories about the nature of online media. This is a moment when legacy-media companies need to move rapidly, boldly and flexibly toward relevant futures, and every iota of time and energy spent debating the relevancy of a paid-content business model for general news coverage is a movement in the wrong direction.