Death of TimesSelect: You can’t control your readers

One of my favourite podcasts is NPR’s On the Media. It’s a great mix of meta coverage about media and the business of media as well as reviews of international media. For instance, they often have the blogger Mark Lynch of Abu Aardvark giving Arabic-language media reviews. They had a great piece this week about Cambodia trying to convince sceptical youth that the Khmer Rouge really did commit such horrific acts.

This past week, they also had a great interview with general manager Vivian Schiller about the death of TimesSelect. She does a good job explaining why the New York Times tore down the pay wall, and it was refreshing to hear someone in commercial media talk about ‘the public domain’ as a reason for opening the Times’ archive before 1922.

…in fact, 1851 to 1922, which has got a lot of cool stuff, including coverage of the Civil War and the Titanic, is now available for free because it belongs to the public. It’s the public domain.

Why did they take down the pay wall? In the long term, the single-digit growth from subscription revenue was outstripped by the growth from advertising. The comment that really stood out in my mind though was when she was asked whether they were worried about losing paying subscribers by having a totally free site (apart from the archives from 1922 to 1987). She said (my emphasis):

Well, yes, and there may be some that do that. But you know what? We can’t force behavior on people. We have to provide our content in the way that consumers want it, and if we lose a newspaper subscription, then so be it. But you can’t force change. You can’t work against the tide.

You can’t force behaviours on people. You have to learn how your readers/viewers/listeners behave and how they want their news, information, conversation and community. Follow their lead so you can keep supporting, as Ms Schiller puts it, the social mission of journalism.

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