September 23rd, 2007 | Published in Reporting commentary
The New York Times will stop charging for access to parts of its Web site, effective at midnight tonight. The move comes two years to the day after The Times began the subscription program, TimesSelect, which has charged $49.95 a year, or $7.95 a month, for online access to the work of its columnists and to the newspaper’s archives. TimesSelect has been free to print subscribers to The Times and to some students and educators.
The above from the announcement in the NY Times itself. As a Web user I didn’t like TimesSelect but as an observer of the media I have been waiting to see if it would work. We really didn’t know and, of course, it was their money and their call, but as someone familiar with McLuhan it seemed to me they were ‘driving into the future with their eyes firmly fixed on the rear view mirror’. Perhaps the single most valuable idea running through the work of Marshal McLuhan is that all new technologies are extensions of ourselves and that they don’t just change the outside world, they change us. We can’t easily see how they will work out because at first we can only conceive of them in terms of the past. Cars are initially horseless carriages – not the basis for a complex transportation system. McLuhan is particularly valuable because he warns us that whenever a new technology emerges things are going to change in ways we cannot initially conceive. At first we focus on the outside effects of the new technology and are much less aware that we ourselves haven’t yet changed in response to the new conditions. That is why the second and third generations that grow up with a new technology come up with so many new ways of using it. McLuhan warns us that when we encounter a new technology there are going to be what Donald Rumsfeld, love him or hate him, usefully labeled ‘unknown unknowns’. In practical terms McLuhan helps us move things from the unknown unknown category into the known unknown category more quickly.
Here is a member of a younger generation – my son as it happens – holding forth for 30 seconds on the process of transforming the Web from the unknown to the known:
By the time the NY Times decided to try bucking the trend of free content on the Web they and the rest of us knew we were dealing with a known unknown. After all it seems to work just fine for the Wall Street Journal. So it might have worked, but it didn’t. It was a outstanding example of what my son calls Web 1.0 – ‘doing business as usual but with new tools’. McLuhan’s theory suggested to me that the thinking at the Times was derived from the past – the subscription model based of an ink and paper industrial product. But the Internet is not a printing press, its a hyperlinked network. Some of the reasons it didn’t work are not surprisingly related to the nature of networks. Jeff Jarvis puts his finger on it here.
It took the Times columnists out of the conversation and reduced their influence in America and worldwide.
Yup, Web 2.0 is about conversation and that was exactly my experience as a regular reader of The Times Op Ed columnists. When they recently opened up TimesSelect to academics I was tempted to use my alma mater’s email forwarding service to scam the Times into coughing up, but I thought – ‘No, they walled those guys off and they should live with the consequences.’ But Jeff Jarvis points to an even bigger unanticipated consequence of requiring payment for access:
Worse, it diluted the paper’s Googlejuice. ….the company shut off some of its content from Google’s search and bloggers’ links. That was its greatest harm.
And that is what the Times has determined through hard experience with real money. Bottom line: there is more money in Googlejuice than subscriptions. And they are doing something about it – which is what my son calls Web 3.0.
After I’d written this post I realized that initially I used the Web the same way I used the New York Times starting in 1956 – as a source of news. That’s so Web 1.0. By 2003 I tentatively joined the conversation by commenting on blogs and fully joined the conversation in 2005 when I started Yankeewombat.com. I’d reached Web 2.0. This year I decided to stop complaining and do something – and that something is newmediatheory.net.
Crossposted at Yankeewombat.com