Boston Herald business scribe Brett Arends posed a fretful question yesterday: “Will Web bloggers turn today’s news columnists into tomorrow’s dinosaurs?”
“Is the newspaper columnist doomed?” Arends began — quite a question for a newspaper columnist to ask. “Will future generations look back on the likes of George Will and Thomas Friedman as curiosities of a bygone age, the way we might view vaudeville stars of old?”
Arends pointed to some faulty “new evidence they might”: the New York Times’ recent announcement that over 482,000 people now subscribe to TimesSelect, its much-maligned effort to generate new revenue online.
While “The Times doubtless feels this is a success” as the service was only launched last September, Arends seemed to think it was a foreboding failure:
“However, the paper further admits that 62 percent of those users get the service for free, because they already subscribe to the print version of the newspaper.
“In other words, only the other 183,000 users are willing to pay $50 a year to read the likes of Friedman, Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman, online.”
Arends next pointed to the most recent Nielsen NetRatings numbers, which show that nytimes.com had 11.9 million unique domestic visitors in April.
“But just 1.5 percent of those visitors, or 1 in 65, are willing to fork over extra money to read the columns online,” said Arends. “One in 65.”
Based on that unconvincing comparison, Arends went on to state that the statistic “might give management some awkward ideas about how to cut costs” — goodbye, Tom and Mo? — and reminded his readers that “the Times’ gloomy subscriber figures are for the opinion industry’s biggest stars.”
Time for a reality check.
Since TimesSelect debuted, it has grown steadily. In early November it claimed 270,000 subscribers, “half of whom were plunking down cold, hard cash,” as Joseph Nocera wrote at the time (TimesSelect required). By late January, it had 390,000 total subscribers, 156,000 of whom were paying for the service. And as of mid-May, those numbers have risen to 482,000 and 183,000, respectively.
Regardless of how you slice the percentages, the Times has added 183,000 new paying customers in about eight months — roughly $9.15 million in annual revenue. TimesSelect may not be a blockbuster, but in what other industry would that kind of performance be called “gloomy”?
Meantime, Arends’ newspaper just this week abandoned its three-year-old attempt at charging online readers to read its stable of marquee columnists. (“Herald Columnists are now FREE!!” says the Herald Web site, which claims an average of “2.5 million unique visits per month.”)
Arends doesn’t say how bloggers will bury newspaper columnists, exactly. But, he concludes, even the Times “can’t bring in a lot of paying customers” for “its pantheon of greats”: “Unless that changes, what hope is there for anyone else?”
Plenty, actually — just not for the Herald’s own TimesSelect-like operation, now consigned, like pay walls at Slate and the Los Angeles Times before it, to the dustbin of online history.