Sulzberger: If Only TimesSelect Could Be Free

Seemed like all 750 people who registered for PaidContent’s first New York soirée showed up last night, and we’re sure at least some of them were there because Rafat Ali announced (less than a million dollars) in funding the day before.

The festivities — after a wait down the (steaming hot and muggy) stairs to get into the ballroom floor at the Union Square “W” hotel — kicked off with Rafat (above with a fan) interviewing New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who was there to talk about the glories of the digital side of the empire. “Punch”:

  • Wishes the Times columnists could be free — and not behind the TimesSelect wall — but then how would the Times Co., he said, pay for the world gallivants of international columnists like Nick Kristoff and Thomas Friedman (who told us he, too, wishes he could be free)?

    Not to mention the $3 million it costs just to keep five people in Iraq, not counting salaries, Sulz said. Sulzberger said he didn’t know how many of the standalone subscriptions to TimesSelect (as opposed to ones that come free with the print subscription) came from people wanting the columnists vs. the archives (we asked) but that he’d find out soon, from his new hire Michael Zimbalist, founder and former head of the Online Publishers Association and current future-looking metrics guy. We also had our suspicion confirmed by a Times executive that a big reason for placing the columnists behind The Wall, rather than, say, the business coverage, is because it’s hard to “monetize” the columnists on sponsorships or other high-priced ads. (What sponsor wants its beloved products next to stories about Sudanese starvation or the supposed misdeeds of the President?)

  • Could “see resting the editorial operation” on the earnings of the dot-com side, since it brought in $200 million last year. By our reckoning (with the help of a waggish friend), that means only $750 million or so to go, until dot-com takes over.
  • Believes the paper wouldn’t get sued for prior restraint of the Pentagon Papers today, because all the Papers would have gone online right away, rather than being rolled out day after day in the newspaper. Interesting, in the context of the terrorism-and-banking brouhaha.
  • Says blogs are an important way of “engaging our audience. That’s our job, engaging our audience.”
  • Says that if TimesSelect’s 500,000 registered users were counted separately they’d be the third-largest publication in the Times’ empire, behind BoGlo, and if the ones who subscribe to TS alone were counted (we figure maybe 150,000), it’d be #4. He then asked how many people in the audience were from Boston and would pay for some inside information on the Red Sox.

    We got the requisite ContentNext canvas bag (we guess our friend Rafat has arrived), and a bunch of yummy meat-on-sticks concoctions, as well as free drinks. (PaidContent editor Staci Kramer quipped that you could tell last night from the ’90s because there were only two drinks per person, and no carving station.) Others there we saw included Bill Burger, former colleague at Newsweek and now exec at the Copyright Clearance Center; Sridhar Pappu of the Atlantic; Spencer Reiss also formerly of Newsweek but now of Wired; Rajiv Dashi director of Internet operations for; Jemima Kiss, who works for Rafat in London and may do some stuff for us here; Ash Nashed, the brains and braun behind the new subscription search service, Mark Lukasiewicz of NBC’s digital operations and Marc Strausberg, head of the phenomenally successful (why didn’t we think of that?) Edgar Online, which basically takes public equities information and repackages it for some 20,000 clients such as libraries and corporations and makes a bundle doing so.

    Catch a video of Sulzberger’s remarks, and more of our photos on Flickr.