Critics of sulzberger’s management of the Times Company sometimes argue that while he may be a champion of online growth, his push to move the company in that direction has been too slow and full of missteps. They cite the failed experiment of TimesSelect. Announced with fanfare in 2005, the online service placed op-ed and some other content behind a subscription wall. It was a move to try to monetize Web traffic to the site. Sulzberger touted it as a model for the years ahead, but less than two years later, TimesSelect was gone and with it, the idea of a steady, newspaper-like subscription revenue stream from online publications.
Jon Landman, the Times deputy managing editor who oversees digital journalism for the paper, says the notion that TimesSelect was a total failure is wrong. The service had almost 200,000 independent subscribers, he says, and was on pace to bring in about $10 million when it was terminated. “The problem was that as the Web developed, search took over everything,” Landman says. With TimesSelect, a big block of content was invisible to search engines like Google. Dropping the subscription wall, Landsman said, helped pump up the number of unique visitors to NYTimes.com from twelve million to twenty million, “a serious increase.” Some of the content formerly behind the wall of TimesSelect, like columns by Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman, are now among the biggest traffic drivers to the site, and key to making it the most popular newspaper site on the Web.
Openness and user interaction are an important part of NYTimes.com’s future, says Landman, as it pushes to become more of a social networking destination, hopefully creating a powerful interactive community from the paper’s affluent readership. Already, he notes, the Web site is exerting significant influence over news decisions. “Just two or three years ago, people used to worry about the paper scooping itself on the Web site,” he says. “That’s all gone. It’s over. If anything, the default position is now the other way around.” Landman says the site has about twenty professional videojournalists, more than fifty blogs, and is increasing its Webcasting and podcasting. “Our Web producers are becoming very influential in the newsroom,” Landman says. On the flip side, he notes that with reporters doing more and more on the Web, “resource tension” is a fact of life. “You have to face that squarely. You don’t want to burn people out.”
Increasing Web traffic is one thing; making money off that traffic is another. The Times will never match the Web traffic of a site like Google. But that’s the wrong test, says Denise Warren, senior vice president of advertising for the New York Times Media Group. “Google plays in the search business. We play in the display-ad business,” Warren says. The key is to convince advertisers that the volume of traffic is not as important as the quality of the audience.
Another key to success is finding ways to push the Times out to a variety of new technology platforms. Solving that problem falls, in large part, to Michael Zimbalist, who runs the company’s fourteen-person research-and-development department. Zimbalist’s group is constantly monitoring how people use the Times. For example, he notes that while “smart” phones comprise only 6 percent of the cellular market, 33 percent of mobile readers of the Times use smart phones. “That tells us we can experiment more with stuff that works with smart phones,” Zimbalist says. In the future, he adds, the Times will have to be as much a media-technology company as it is a pure media company, rapidly developing new products to take advantage of emerging platforms. Already his team entered and won a design contest sponsored by Google, coming up with “ShifD,” which automatically links your phone to your computer, telling it what you were reading and shifting it over to the other device. “We really are a tech company,” says Zimbalist. “We have seventy-five developers at NYTimes.com with thirty more open positions to fill.”