The New York Times has announced that, effective midnight tonight, they will stop charging for access to various portions of their Website.
Two years ago the Times made what turned out to be a stupid decision: they decided to start charging for their top columnists, 20-year archives, and various special features. The result was that influential columnists like Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, and Maureen Dowd were marginalized, with far fewer people reading their articles.
The Times owners did not get the Web. They didn’t understand the effect of search engines and broad distribution on advertising and other “passive” revenue sources.
The Times article explains that they didn’t misunderstand, but it was the Web that changed:
What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to NYTimes.com. These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.
â€œWhat wasnâ€™t anticipated was the explosion in how much of our traffic would be generated by Google, by Yahoo and some others.â€
The Los Angeles Times tried a similar model in 2005, charging for access to its arts section, but quickly dropped it after experiencing a sharp decline in Web traffic. We can expect to see newspapers using this example to continue to move into the world of free information.