There's already a fresh round of glee over the death of TimesSelect, which The New York Times announced tonight weeks after the latest round of rumors of its demise triggered the last round of "I told you so" excitement in the media blogosphere. (It's amazing how many otherwise responsible people leapt upon those rumors as fact, even though for weeks they were just speculation. Ah, the blogosphere.)
But the delight about the end of TimesSelect is misplaced. While the "content needs to be free" crowd hails it as a victory, the fact is that TimesSelect was the right idea, badly executed. Simply put, the Times put the wrong content behind its $49.95 pay wall. Columnists and opinion? At a time when the blogosphere is all about debating the very issues those columnists wrote about? Cutting Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd et al out of the conversation just wasn't very smart. And the syndication of those columnists made the Times' decision to restrict access even more ridiculous—the only place you couldn't get them for free was the Times site itself. Oops!
TimesSelect could have been so much more. It could have been a high-end subscription service for in-depth coverage that wasn't otherwise available, for supplemental reporting and blogs and Web-only content in specific vertical topics that would have been valuable to the Times' core audience, and worth 50 bucks a year. As it was, the Times' decision to include almost unlimited access to its archives in TimesSelect was a smart move all by itself. Surely a broader, deeper for-pay product could have been built around that core. Alas, we may never know.
I hear internal politics had as much to do with the decision to kill TimesSelect as business factors; as it was, the program was bringing in $10 million or so a year in revenue. Indeed, 227,000 people had signed up to pay $49.95 a year for this deeply flawed product. That's not too shabby, actually. The Times hopes to make up that $10 million through advertising on the unfettered content. It will be interesting to see if that's more profitable.
The Wall Street Journal continues with an online subscription product, as do Consumer Reports, ESPN.com and Zagat.com, to name three major consumer publications that nobody ever seems to count when looking at paid models. Given the Times' influence on the rest of journalism, the demise of TimesSelect will probably be discouraging to others that might try to make a business of charging online readers for premium products. But that model is still out there waiting for somebody to perfect. Someday, somebody will.