Thursday, June 22, 2006


ANALYSIS: Can TimesSelect, and newspaper subscriptions in general, last?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Can TimesSelect, and newspaper subscriptions in general, last?

Posted by John Burke on June 21, 2006 at 06:15 PM

No matter how many times I read accounts of New York Times executives reporting the results of their online subscription program, TimesSelect, at various conferences, I just canÿÿt believe behind that cheery disposition that they are actually convinced it is working and will continue to do so.

Sure, 500,000 people have signed up. Sure it has taken in $6 million in revenue, money it would not have earned if it hadnÿÿt launched the program and which, according to CEO Janet Robinson, ÿÿreally bodes wellÿÿ for NYTCo. But the numbers really havenÿÿt changed much since January. And for a new product to stop gaining new users 4 months after it begins doesnÿÿt really bode well.

Firstly, take the fact that only around 175,000 of those 500,000 TimesSelect subscribers are online only NYT adherents. The other 325,000 are print subscribers who receive the service free of charge. Secondly, compare that $6 million to the estimated $600 million the Times pulls in from print subscriptions. Online subs ainÿÿt quite there yet. But are online subs the answer to the future of newspaper revenue? Are subs at all the answer?

Just look at free papers. In ten years, Metro International has turned itself into the worldÿÿs third-largest distributed paper, and according to Media Life has even had fairly good success in the three US markets in which it has launched. Itÿÿs not only the numbers that make Metro look impressive, but the 18-39 demographic it reaches is the golden fleece for advertisers. And the way in which the paper is printed, often with a large ad splashed across the outside cover, acts like a billboard on public transportation, a very attractive feature for advertisers.

What about personalized news? The trend towards readers engaging with only the content they desire is also one that is sure not to stop. And although Michael Golden, publisher of the International Herald Tribune, makes a good point when referencing the ÿÿserendipityÿÿ of newspapers, does he really think that print papers will be able to curb online customized news?

Golden recently spoke out against selling articles one by one (a system of micropayments that has oft been suggested on this blog) because it ÿÿwould undermine the economics of investing across a broad range of areas, as well as change the nature of newspapers.ÿÿ Funny how, since it seems that Golden doesnÿÿt want to tweak the newspaper business model too much, dehe is also quoted in the same speech as saying ÿÿThe challenge is in the business model, the challenge is not in the culture.ÿÿ

On the other hand, a French colleague of Goldenÿÿs, managing director of electronic publishing for Les Echoes, Philippe Jannet, declared at the same conference that ÿÿnewspapers who do not sell by individual stories will die.ÿÿ Back to NYT. Robinson said that with the ÿÿsuccessÿÿ of TimesSelect that the ÿÿcompany is considering ways to put more content on pay tiers. This has already been predicted with the upcoming release of Times Reader, a joint project with Microsoft that hasnÿÿt received the best press. But would NYT be willing to go the un-subscription routes mentioned above? An NYT freesheet? A system of micropayments where readers get only what they want, not New York Region, IHT, Business, Sports and Op-ed columnists all rolled into one $50 package? Chances are, not yet.

But I do have some predictions for TimesSelect.

Expect a large marketing campaign come the end of August. The original (first 6 weeks of program) 135,000 non-print subscriptions will be up for renewal come mid-September. Not only is the Times company going to want to keep those subscribers, but theyÿÿll also want to add to the (not-as-impressive) 40,000 non-print subscribers they have added over the rest of the year.

Expect a high churn rate. To be frank, I lack subscriber reviews of the service to back this prediction. But banking on TimesSelectÿÿs specs, which havenÿÿt changed too significantly, I donÿÿt think many subscribers would consider it worth another $50. New subscribers, however, will be attracted by a discounted price which the Times will probably run throughout the month of September.

(Personally, I used to love reading Dowd, Krugman and Kristof for intelligent wit and wisdom with my lunch. But I donÿÿt
miss them, especially since I can watch clips from the Daily Show for free at will. This is exactly the problem with
subscription services: thereÿÿs so much other free choice!).

Even after the promotion, expect a lower number of non-print subscribers. The plan has been well advertised. Anyone who reads the Times on a regular basis is familiar with it. If they had wanted to sign up, they would have done it by now. Honestly, I wish I could be more positive about NYT and its efforts to charge. But Iÿÿm 26. I find 99% of what Iÿÿm looking for on the Internet free of charge. If I need a quick shot of news in the morning, I open my computer or grab a free paper. Iÿÿm getting by just fine without NYTÿÿs op-ed columnists (although I did buy Freidmanÿÿs last bookÿÿdiscounted on Amazon). It already takes me the entire week to get through my Economist. Donÿÿt even think Iÿÿd dish out over $600 for a year-long print subscription (I could buy 2 iPods for that much!).

Yep, itÿÿs going to take daily newspapers a lot of business model experimentation to ever get someone like me to buy a subscription. And regarding those potential readers 10 years younger than me, Iÿÿm sorry to say the situation only gets worse.

Sources: MarketWatch, Media Life, Financial Times (Golden), Steve Yelvington


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