Jay Rosen PressThinks on TimesSelect

There has been a lot of ink spilled (mostly digitally) on TimesSelect, launched Monday and thrown into relief as essential revenue-generator with the announcement of job cuts at the NYT Co. Tuesday. But for batting cleanup, there’s no one like PressThink’s Jay Rosen to ponder the issues and distill the important points. Today he does so on TimesSelect, and makes some excellent points, further distilled for you here.

Rosen quotes* a journalism student who asks “Even if the Times picked up most of its existing online readers, how are they going to grow a new generation of online Op-Ed readers if they keep the columnists behind a pay firewall?” Excellent question, he says, and points to the Times press release, which touts TimesSelect as offering “exclusive online access” to the “distinctive voices of the Op-Ed, Business, Metro and Sports columnists” of the NYT and IHT.

First, he wonders aloud at the notion of “exclusive online access” and determines the notion oxymoronic where relevance is concerned:

“[D]o we value Nicholas D. Kristof‘s column more if he’s an “exclusive?”

We don’t. In fact, it’s probably the reverse. If everyone is reading a columnist, that makes the columnist more of a must have. If “everyone” isn’t, less of a must. “Exclusive online access” attacks the perception of ubiquity that is part and parcel of a great columnist’s power. In his prime Walter Lippmann was called “the name that opened every door.” Nick Kristof’s brand of human rights journalism, which depends on the mobilization of outrage, is simply less potent if it can’t reach widely around the world, and pass by every door.

(NB op-ed page editor Gail Collins has acknowledged this. High price to pay, it seems.)

Rosen also thinks that the Times may be overestimating the must-have appeal of its columnists’ voices. How distinct are they? “Does Bob Herbert write about forgotten Americans in a distinctly different voice, or in a NAACP-big-city-outraged-liberal-Democrat one?… When I read Dave Anderson in sports he sounds like every other sports columnist, even when he’s on target.” (Eek, snap on Anderson there.)

How distinct, really, is the Times at all? Yes it’s the Paper of Record and the most august institution in journalism, but the world is changing, and bloggers are covering stories, often just as well as the Times newsroom; between the flexibility of 24-hour reporting capability and the interlinking of big-time (and small-time) bloggers, the blogosphere often functions as a real-time newsroom (cases in point: the Alessandra Stanley Geraldo/corrections Zeitgeist of late; and the Karl Rove scandal that the Times didn’t touch for a week after it was buzzing all around the blogosphere).

Rosen thinks the Times‘ pride may goeth before a fall — in readership, and revenue — because online content that value-adds is, well, valuable (such as his, he points out). He cites Mickey Kaus, who thinks that if TimesSelect subscription rates were rocking in its first week, the NYT would surely tell the world. He also points out that MEL‘s top five hasn’t included an Op-Edster since TimesSelect took effect: “previously almost unheard of” (and especially damning, considering that TimesSelect is FREE for the first two weeks!).

There’s lots more good stuff there: excerpts, commentary, and even Diane McNulty from the NYT communications department reversing what she said on our own MediaBistro about offering bloggers financial incentives to link to TimesSelect content; apparently the payoff will be through advertising links in the form of click-through purchases of TimesSelect. Big diff. Point being, Jay Rosen value-adds on this and if you are interested in getting your head around the issue, it’s a great place to start. Also, he provides a link to TimesSelect stuff — free! It’s here. MoDo awaits.

*Our first quadruple attribution, btw: Quoting Rosen quoting Steve Outing quoting George Mason University journalism professor Steve Klein quoting one of his students. We used to play a game like this when we were kids, usually not synonymous with being the best method for verifying the accuracy of a statement. Even so, we trust Jay.