The New York Times needs an online impresario to help it pay its bills

The New York Times should indeed use its website to generate more revenue – but not by charging for any part of its presently all-free daily report. Executive Editor Bill Keller’s recent ruminations on the touchy subject of paid content have led to speculation that the dearly departed Times Select will be reincarnated in some more palatable form. Times Select required users to start paying for the paper’s columnists and some other stories. It threw in as a sweetener the paper’s archives going back to the 19th century. But most of the millions of users decided they wouldn’t pay for content they’d been getting for free.

A confidential memo from multimedia publishing pioneer Steve Brill obtained by Romenesko argues that the Times should “[flip] the Web’s lethal dynamics” and start charging for online content. Under Brill’s elaborate pricing scheme – you have to read his whole, alternately maddening and inspired memo – visitors would pay $55 a year to get access to all content. Search engines and aggregation sites would continue to get free access to the headline and first paragraph of each story – to help keep relevant as an information source on the Internet. Brill, who unsuccessfully tried to sell paid content with his Brill’s Content during the boom/bust, acknowledges in his memo “all of this may seem unrealistic,” but nonetheless concludes, “There is no alternative.”

Times Select was a bust, as was Brill’s Content. But there’s another way for the Times to exploit the potential of its website to raise needed revenue that advertising by itself can’t bring. Why doesn’t the Times mobilize its redoubtable 1,300-person-strong newsroom to start producing added-value online content for which, I’ll bet, a good fraction of users would pay a monthly fee? A lot of the content would help out-of-town visitors make their trips to NYC and other cities more interesting and even memorable. I spelled out some content specifics for what I called TimesPlus in an OJR article last December.

The Times is already half way there in producing added value beyond the daily report – and for which it rightly charges (and finds willing buyers). Except you can’t find it online.

There’s the New York Times Travel Show – Feb. 6-8 this year at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center – for which tickets cost $15. The Times charges as much from $30 to $65 ($100 for “VIP” seating) for lectures, musical performances and other events at TimesCenter, the popular multi-purpose venue in the New York Times Building. Those events, and others like them, could be re-purposed as part of the multi-media TimesPlus subscription package. After all, millions of out-of-town users can’t go to the Javits Center or TimesCenter.

To make TimesPlus happen, the paper needs to hire an online Sol Hurok-type impresario – I doubt there’s any such person on the premises now – who could figure out how to creatively unlock all the under-used talent in the newsroom – and maybe in other departments at the paper. One Hurokian gambit might be for the Times to persuade Broadway and other theater producers to permit video clips of their shows to be part of the TimesPlus package. What a draw that would be to lure subscribers. With the theatrical industry facing shrinking audiences in what is likely to be a long-term economic crunch, producers might see such a deal as a win-win.

The annual bill for the Times daily news report is above $200 million, according to one recent estimate. If just 10 percent of the website’s 20 million unique visitors signed up for TimesPlus – at, say, $100 a year – that would pay for a big chunk of the news, which Executive Editor Keller rightly says comes only through “hard, expensive, sometimes dangerous work.”

Filling in the blanks on DocumentCloud

Back in November, some folks from The New York Times and ProPublica filed an ambitious grant proposal in the Knight News Challenge competition. It asks for $1 million to fund DocumentCloud, a solution that would apply the wisdom of the crowd to the problem of organizing and examining documents.

The muchbuzzedabout idea aims to develop open standards and APIs to make source documents “easy to find, share, read and collaborate on.” (You can find the full text of the proposal here.)

I asked three of the proposal’s authors, Aron Pilhofer of the Times and Scott Klein and Eric Umansky of ProPublica, to elaborate on their vision for document nirvana.


Can anyone add documents to the repository, or is it necessary to be a news organization? Any concerns over the possibility of forged documents being uploaded?

Aron Pilhofer: The repository will be open for anyone to read from, but not to contribute to. It will be limited to news organizations, bloggers and watchdog groups whose mission includes publishing source documents as a means of better informing the public about issues of the day. That said, the software that makes DocumentCloud go will itself be open source, and available for anyone to use. So, if others want to create DocumentClouds of their own, they can certainly do that.

Scott Klein: We don’t want DocumentCloud to become a generic repository for all documents, or as a quick-and-dirty way to host PDFs. We want somebody to have found these documents to be of news value.

Presumably, DocumentCloud will not be branded with the NYT and ProPublica logos front and center. Would it be staffed and maintained as a separate entity?

AP: There is so much misinformation out there on this question, so I’m glad you asked. In fact, that is what we are asking Knight to fund: the creation of a completely independent entity called DocumentCloud. So the answer, of course, is: It won’t have any NYT or ProPublica branding.

Though we’ve just started to talk about structure and such, it’s entirely possible the only connection the Times, at least, has to DocumentCloud once it’s up and running is as a user and contributor.

SK: Same with ProPublica. Although I suspect somebody from both the Times and ProPublica will be part of the board for DocumentCloud, it’s important to note that this is going to be completely separate from both organizations and shouldn’t monetarily benefit either.

What is the nature of the collaboration between the Times and ProPublica? How will the work on this project be divided?

AP: TBD, but probably I will focus more on the technology side because the Times is contributing a large amount of the software and I understand that part best.

SK: I think we’ll each do a bit of everything but the plan is for the grant to fund developers, so the bulk of the development work won’t need dividing.

The Knight grants come with strings attached (namely, the requirement that projects be open-source) that might turn off some for-profit companies. Aron, how did you sell your bosses on the idea of applying for this? And, as a for-profit company, how would the NYT benefit from this grant?

AP: There’s a bit of misinformation out there about the role of The New York Times in this project, so maybe I should clarify this a bit more.

The grant is not for The New York Times, so the question of strings and for-profits just isn’t relevant. The Times won’t be involved in any way except as a founding participant and donor to the project (contributing my time and a significant chunk of software).

The grant would be used to create an independent, non-profit organization called DocumentCloud, which would manage the grant, build and maintain the software and so forth. Given the intensely competitive nature of the news business, we reckoned that this project had to be in the hands of an independent, impartial broker in order for a consortium like this to work.

DocumentCloud hasn’t been a hard sell because we’re we’re not asking anyone to do anything they aren’t already doing. We (like most media organizations) are already posting source documents online — just not in a way they can be easily searched, cataloged or shared.

If things go well, everyone will benefit because, finally, there will be open standards and open-source technologies available to make that happen. And even if it fails utterly and completely, DocumentCloud will still provide new tools to make publishing documents online easier, faster and more accessible for everyone.

If the proposal is approved, will DocumentCloud be developed in-house, or will you hire outside developers (or both)?

AP: Development will be done entirely by DocumentCloud developers (see above). Part of the grant funding is to support a dedicated development team.

SK: One tidbit that I don’t think we’ve shared widely is that DocumentCloud is designed to live in the cloud (get it?) so we plan to use Amazon’s EC2 and S3 infrasctructure very extensively, and I know Aron’s toying with releasing the DocumentViewer as an EC2 AMI to make it really easy for news orgs to use it without worrying about their content management system or IT people at all.

Seems to me that one of the biggest differences between the DocumentCloud idea and existing document-viewing systems (Docstoc, Scribd, etc.) is the provision to OCR each document, which will allow people to search within documents and to link to and annotate specific passages. Any thoughts on how the OCR part will work?

AP: We outline some of the differences in our latest grant application, but this is really quite a bit more of an apples/oranges comparison than you may realize.

DocumentCloud isn’t a viewer; it’s a standard, and a web service. It’s a system that allows anyone to make documents sharable regardless of what platform it’s on or where it’s hosted.

Scribd is similar in that users can upload documents and make them public. Within Scribd, registered users can comment on those documents, link to them, search them, etc. But everything has to happen within the Scribd environment.

DocumentCloud takes that idea a step further and removes the barriers. It allows users to search, link to and comment on documents regardless of where they are housed, or what platform they are sitting on. All we will ask is that those who are contributing documents do so in a standardized format.

So, Scribd or Docstoc could, in theory, adopt the standard and enable their users to contribute to DocumentCloud, and we hope they do.

I think some of the confusion on this point is of our own making because of the DocumentViewer portion of the project. The viewer is (or will be) nothing more than an off-the-shelf, completely open-source implementation of that standard. But DocumentCloud will be completely agnostic in this regard. If Scribd or Docstoc (or or The Smoking Gun) want to create their own compatible viewer, they are completely welcome to do so.

The reason we included the viewer in the grant application (and there was a lot of discussion internally about this) is because a key part of this project is lowering the barriers of participation. Many organizations don’t have the capability of developing their own software for viewing documents or integrating them with DocumentCloud, so we felt that was an important part of the project too so we kept it in.

SK: Aron’s making a key point here: This isn’t competitive with Docstoc or Scribd, and isn’t even meant to replace a simple list of PDFs if that’s what you want to use. DocumentCloud is a way to organize all of these disparate ways of storing digitized source documents in a way that makes them maximally useful to “reporters” (counting, of course, traditional newsroom reporters as well as bloggers, academic researchers, etc.) Frankly, DocumentViewer is, for a news organization presenting complex document collections, a really great user experience, but it’s not required to be part of DocumentCloud.

Will DocumentViewer be released to the public even if the DocumentCloud proposal isn’t funded? Is there a timeline for that?

AP: Yes, but there’s no specific timeline right now. We’re working on it in between other, more deadline-specific projects. My best guess right now is that we’ll have something releasable in the late spring. That’s about as specific as I can get right now.

What organizations are you soliciting source documents from? I think Eric mentioned the National Security Archive; anywhere else?

AP: None yet. We have talked to a limited number of groups (Gotham Gazette and, yes, the National Security Archive and possibly others) to partner with us on the development of the project. But we’re not actively soliciting documents at this point.

SK: We’ve got a fairly extensive wish list of news organizations and nonprofit groups we want to bring in on the project (none of whom would surprise you I think), and we’ve talked with some folks very informally but all of our discussions have been like “save the date” cards as opposed to wedding invitations, if you get my meaning.

Eric Umansky: As Aron and Scott have said, we’re just at the beginning of this and have just had initial discussion with a few groups. Having said that, we have been in touch with the NSA (the private, non-profit one) and are particularly excited about working with them since they are really among the best in the biz at cataloging and archiving government source documents.

Are there certain kinds of documents that you think will be particularly well-suited to perusal and annotation using DocumentCloud?

EU: Honestly, I’m not really sure. Like the best parts of the Web, what we’re trying to do is build an infrastructure that will support and encourage intelligent contributions. So, not to get all web doe-eyed about it, but the very utility of it is that people will have the ability and interest to submit documents beyond the one we’re already aware of.

How do you plan to surface the most interesting stuff from within this potentially vast database? Will there be a blog or a recent highlights list of some kind? Will you take some pop-culture cues from The Smoking Gun?

AP: We’re hopeful that users will surface this stuff, and we won’t have to. We have not talked about whether we’ll have a blog or highlights — or even if DocumentCloud itself will have a web presence outside the APIs. It’s just not something we’ve decided yet.

SK: We’re laying the foundation for the great work of others, and have very little interest in applying our own editorial judgment on what people post, assuming two things: 1) people follow whatever rules we come up with (like don’t post inappropriate things, etc.), and 2) they themselves apply editorial judgment to what they upload. I think it’s impossible to predict what kinds of stories this will help tell, and I find that really exciting.

EU: I agree with Scott and Aron. We’re really at too early a stage to have a concrete sense of this. And I’m the farthest one here from the software side of this, but one thing we would like to do is build a kind of reader loop into the system. So, not only could you sort by the “most read” documents but you could also sort specific pages that way. For example, if you had a 500-page report that had juicy bits buried on pg. 432, the “crowd” would eventually point you there since it would be flagged and become the most popular page.

Any updates on the News Challenge judging process? Do you know if you’re in the “top 50”?

AP: No idea.

SK: All we know is that we’ve passed the first of four rounds of scrutiny, as have some other really great ideas.

Winners will be announced in the fall, according to the Knight News Challenge site.

How the New York Times can fight back and win: a reprise

The New York Times Co. — the whole caboodle, including the esteemed and necesssary flagship paper, 18 other, mostly monopoly dailies, the spunky About instructional search engine and minority ownership of the half-redeemed Boston Red Sox — is worth less than what the company paid for just one of its properties, the Boston Globe. That’s what the stock market said as of Wednesday, Nov. 26, and that was after a bounceback from a near-historic low — $5.34 – on Nov. 21.

With advertising in its print edition continuing to slide by double-digit percentages, the Times is pursuing, in the words of President/CEO Janet L. Robinson, a “strict cost discipline.” But, happily, it’s looking as if the company finally understands that it can’t cut its way back to financial health (and a stock price that doesn’t look like an unfortunate misprint).

In August 2007, when the company’s stock had already fallen to a 12-year low, I argued in these pages that the Times could fight back by leveraging the power of its website through the force of social networking. Finally, it’s begun doing so.

The results of the Times recent presidential election promotion on Facebook are amazing – 68.3 million page views of the “What should Barack Obama do first as president” teaser ad and the number of Times “fans” on Facebook soaring almost overnight from 49,000 to 164,000. That’s precisely what viral marketing can do – when there’s untapped potential behind the marketing hype. And – with more than 20 million unique visitors monthly – has potential that no other newspaper site can approach.

I stress “potential,” because the Times, so far, has done too little to capitalize on an audience that includes big slices of all the demographics that advertisers want:

  • Two thirds of users are in the most coveted 25-54 age range.
  • Fifty-seven percent are women (who buy or influence the purchase of 80 percent of all consumer goods, according to marketers).
  • Average income is near $80,000.
  • Close to 50 percent live in the top 25 markets.

    The Times did make one big try to monetize, but that turned into the flop called New York TimesSelect, which put the paper’s columnists behind a subscription wall. Only about two percent of users signed up for the premium service, which cost $7.95 a year or $49.95 yearly. The $10 million in revenue that TimesSelect reeled in was more than offset by potential long-term traffic losses because some of’s most popular features were no longer available on search engines. The walls of TimesSelect came down in September 2007, two years after it was launched.

    The big mistake of TimesSelect, beyond ghetto-izing 98 percent of users, was trying to monetize a mass product, which is what Times columns are, even if they bear the marquee names of Paul Krugman or Maureen Dowd or Tom Friedman. What the Times ought to be doing is monetizing all the resources of its considerably talented staff, which includes not just the renowned names on op-ed columns but scores of reporters, critics and editors who are treasure trove of valuable intelligence on any number of subjects, elevated or lowly, or know where to find it.

    Here’s how that could be done: launches TimesPlus – a premium service that gives subscribers access – literally – to the minds of the entire Times newsroom staff, which includes more than a thousand information experts.

    Let’s say you’re planning a trip to New York. You would complete a checklist where you list all your preferences – everything from hotel (e.g., small, non-convention, mid-priced, convenient to theater district and Madison Avenue shops) to hot but unheralded shops and attractions. Your preferences would be fed into a continually updated database to which the entire Times editorial staff would, as part of their jobs, contribute the latest information (and maybe gossip). You would get back responses to all your preferences, and also an advisory listing discounts your handsomely embossed, computer-chip-embedded TimesPlus subscriber card would give you at New York shops, restaurants and attractions.

    Let’s say, like many users, you follow national politics closely. You could sit in on a weekly video conference phone call — open only to TimesPlus subscribers – during which top Times political reporters, columnists and editors would riff about latest developments and take questions.

    There would also be similar exclusive-content conference calls covering subjects like foreign affairs, the arts, books, entertainment sports, food, science and health – anything that the Times staff is expert on.

    Five times a year, TimesPlus subscribers could submit personalized requests – say, what are safe and interesting but not pricey neighborhoods in Brooklyn (or Los Angeles or Dallas/Fort Worth)? – that would be answered with up-to-date information contributed by Times staffers.

    TimesPlus would be priced at $10 a month, or $100 a year if paid upfront. If 5 percent of’s 20 million unique visitors became subscribers, that would add $100 million revenue that would more than replace tshrinking print ad revenue.

    The percentage of subscribers could be even higher if the Times could convince merchants, restaurants and entertainment venues in all the major U.S. markets to give special deals to TimesPlus members. For many subscribers, those deals would more than pay their TimesPlus fee – just like most holders of the Barnes & Noble Membership card save more than the $25 fee through their discounted book purchases

    TimesPlus would have its own comment boards where subscribers could contribute their ratings, and cross swords with Times experts.

    TimesPlus would also let subscribers build their own multi-media mini-sites and form groups among themselves. What a great place the site would be for subscribers to offer housing for pleasure or even business trips to New York and other cities, as well as vacations, or to sell art and other special and unique objects.

    Subscriptions might start slowly – many people remember TimesSelect – but if the site lived up to even half of its potential, viral marketing would take over and in a couple of years subscribers could swell to several million or more. Imagine the revenue potential if that happened.

    Purists might say what does all this – tips for tourists! — have to do with the mission of the New York Times. But the Times already produces reams of features that are tips about a 10,000 things less significant than how to reduce your carbon footprint. What would be different about TimesPlus intelligence is that it would marshal all the Times considerable but underused resources. The Times has a newsroom staff of about 1,300. TimesPlus would mobilize that talent much more efficiently than the space that editorial content gets in either the print or online paper.

    As recently as 15 years ago, the only New York Times was its print edition. If you lived in Peoria, Ill., you might have to drive a couple of miles to find a place that sold it. The Internet put the Times in reach of anyone with a computer. The editors still made all the decisions about what would go online pages, but at least now there was feedback – sometimes blowback — from users. TimesPlus would break down even more barriers. It would create more and direct connections between Times staff and its readers, and, let readers form relationships among themselves in all kinds of social, professional and volunteer categories. Very likely, subscribers could become a critical mass of resource material for the Times as it uses the Internet to widen its net of information gathering.

    As Times stock has descended in a near-straight line, the specter of bankruptcy has reared its head. Even reorganization would probably mean the end of revealing investigative stories we have seen during the current financial crisis, like this one that opened the door to the executive suites at Merrill Lynch as it was gorging itself on fees from flipping high-risk derivatives, or this one that did the same for Citbank.

    TimesPlus could prevent that from happening. It would provide the bridge from the print to online paper that is desperately, and speedily, needed.