TimesSelect and the History of the NYT Paywall

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When the New York Times (NYT) first began its online news service in 1995, following the lead of several other newspapers, the company aimed to create distinct content that separated their print versions from their digital presence. They added multimedia features, a “Late News Update,” and digitally archived articles and Op-Eds from 1987 onwards. With the growth and accessibility of the internet and the concept of digital advertising revenue, NYT executives agreed that New York Times “on the web” was the most opportune place to increase company revenue and reader access to content. This began the road to the NYT paywall, even though their first digital-only subscription model would not come for another few years.

via New York Times Archives

The New York Times launched its subscription service, TimesSelect, in September 2005. It was meant to provide online access to editorials, columns, and archived articles. Bill Keller, the Executive Editor at the time, commented that the paywall “underscores the value of what we do – trustworthy, aggressively reported professional journalism, which is an increasingly rare and precious thing, and it gives us a second way to sustain that hard, expensive work, in addition to our healthy advertising revenue” (Hatch). Many other NYT executives held similar sentiments and were watching the revenue growth potential of online access to news content. The subscription charged $49.95/year, $7.95/month, or $24.95/year with an education discount, and was free for all subscribers to the print version of the Times. The subscription granted unrestricted access to all daily Op-Ed columns, featured news columns, personalized email briefings, multimedia content, archives, and early access to the Sunday papers. For nearly two years, access to briefings about the Iraq War, progress of the new One World Trade Center, the News Corporation acquisition of MySpace, and several other top stories between 2006-2007 generated buzz around the exclusive content behind the TimesSelect paywall. The original homepage of the TimesSelect site is pictured above, and it shows the various subscription options on the right side and the perks that come with paying to use the service.

In 2007, just two years after TimesSelect launched, the company ended the subscription model, citing that “projections for growth on that paid subscriber base were low, compared to the growth of online advertising” (Perez-Pena). Analysists at NYT concluded that the rise in site visits from external search engines like Yahoo and Google rather than from direct users drove up advertising revenue. They also found that users that found NYT articles from search engines were less interested in columns and most frequently visited the Health and Technology topic articles, most of which were free for the public anyways. This made the paid subscription model less attractive than the advertising model, and executives elected to end the TimesSelect platform after serving over 200,000 paying subscribers. The TimesSelect paywall was not sustainable because it sought monetize the regulation of articles which were already free to read, and it overestimated the interest in archived content and columns.

            Today, the New York Times has continued to roll out subscription-based memberships to their online content, as well as provide digital-only subscriptions to readers who prefer to get their news online. They also offer paid access to topical columns, such as cooking or health. When prompted to subscribe to the Times, the website generates a pop-up box that reads “Your subscription helps our journalists seek the truth,” a powerful message that underscores the importance of supporting journalism, while reinforcing the paywall. Making an appealing claim about “seeking the truth” is a clever way to encourage readers to subscribe to the Times. For the first time ever, NYT’s digital revenue surpassed its print revenue from March-June 2020 (Flynn). This was largely due to its coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic and contentious 2020 Presidential Election. However, with the need for crucial, accurate updates, also comes concerns about who should have access to this content. As one of the most trusted media companies in the United States, the New York Times is widely read and revered for its thorough coverage of major news. However, because many of the more in-depth analyses and Op-Eds tend to be behind a print or digital subscription, those who cannot afford to purchase the access are barred from reading quality opinion pieces and informative analysis on pertinent topics. Fortunately, there are certain topics that are too important to gatekeep, including US Presidential Elections and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Since March, when the pandemic hit the US, and around the time that US political party primaries were occurring, the New York Times committed to providing updates about both the virus and election for free, regardless of subscription status. Similar “emergency” updates have historically been free to access, including information about past Presidential elections, the aftermath of natural disasters, and some coverage of global conflicts and terrorism. It is important to note that while Opinion pieces, analyses, and multimedia content about these topics are still subscription-based, pure informational news is free to access.

Acknowledging the disparity that paid access to information can create, the New York Times has created some free opportunities for reading articles and viewing content. NYT offers a daily briefing subscription, where users can sign up to receive a newsletter with the day’s top stories and news. The briefing covers about eight different topics, and readers can get an overview of breaking stories. However, each story overview usually has another column or article linked to it to provide more context or analysis, which are behind the subscription paywall. Similarly, NYT is active on social media platforms, where major headlines and coverage are posted on apps like Instagram and Twitter, with a quick overview of the story in the comment section. Like the daily briefings, the stories are continued in longer articles which require payment for access. The Times produces a podcast called The Daily, which is released everyday and provides insight on the day’s most pertinent news stories. The podcast is free for all listeners and is one of the NYT services that does not require any account information or payment. The NYT website also offers readers up to 5 free full-length articles on their website before they must subscribe. The company is currently also running a promotion offering a $1/week subscription for one year, demonstrating its commitment to lowering the paywall for readers while continuing to remain profitable. Notably, all these free or reduced cost options require users to register an account with the New York Times, which subjects readers to promotional emails and NYT advertising on other websites that they frequent.

All these opportunities for accessing articles from the New York Times underscore the NYT’s balance between paid and free content. Curious readers can still access the most newsworthy information for free, and more loyal readers can pay for access to exclusive content. Even though the original TimesSelect paywall failed to regulate exclusive content, the newer, customizable subscription models have been successful in enticing readers to subscribe for access to articles or columns of their choice. This balance between keeping readers engaged and informed and sustaining the profits of the company has allowed the New York Times to be trusted as one of the most popular news sources both in the US and internationally.

Works Cited

Flynn, Kerry. “New York Times’ Digital Revenue Exceeds Print for First Time Ever.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Aug. 2020, http://www.cnn.com/2020/08/05/media/new-york-times-q2-2020-earnings/index.html).

Hatch, Lauren. “NYT Brass Sound Off About Paywalls.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 21 Jan. 2010, http://www.businessinsider.com/new-york-times-execs-paywall-2010-1.

Pérez-peña, Richard. “Times to Stop Charging for Parts of Its Web Site.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Sept. 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/18/business/media/18times.html?ex=1347768000.

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