Tarana Khan

Does paid content work for news sites?

‘The New York Times’ is rumoured to be scrapping its paid subscription model. Does this point to a future where all online news content is free?

The Internet is abuzz with talk that ‘The New York Times’ (‘NYT’) will discontinue its TimesSelect paid content service, sparked off by a report in the ‘New York Post’. According to the tabloid, there has been internal dissatisfaction with the service, which cut off subscribers’ access to articles by a few columnists. The newspaper did not confirm the development, but did not deny it either. In fact, the article claims that ‘NYT’ has seen a loss of 3,000 TimesSelect subscribers from April to June 2007.

‘NYT’ launched TimesSelect in 2005, providing access to premium opinion articles and features at $49.95 (Rs 2,000) a year. Ironically, in the same year, ‘The Washington Post’ increased the period for which articles remained freely accessible on its site from 14 to 60 days. The move was made to increase traffic and ad revenues to the website. Largely available to subscribers, ‘The Economist’ also made more of its content freely available earlier this year.

Does paid content work for news sites?
TimesSelect: Unlocking the potential
And things could even be changing at ‘The Wall Street Journal’ (‘WSJ’), which has been successfully running a subscription-driven website for some time. Though it’s early days, Rupert Murdoch’s recent buyout of ‘WSJ’ could entail the freeing up of more content. In a recent interview to ‘
’, Murdoch said: “What if, at the ‘Journal’, we spent $100 million a year hiring the best business journalists in the world? ... And then you make it free, online only.”

In India, print publications are trying out both subscription and free models with no discernible pattern. ‘India Today’ recently shared with agencyfaqs! its plan to make content from magazines such as ‘Business Today’ and ‘India Today’ free on a portal it plans to launch in a few months. ‘Business Standard’, on the other hand, provides archived content in select categories for Rs 149 a year. All other major sites of newspapers – ‘The Times Of India’, ‘Hindustan Times’, ‘The Hindu’, ‘The Economic Times’ and so on – are free.

Paid content on the web has been the subject of speculation for many media companies. Many consider going paid at the risk of losing readers. ‘The Times of India’ recently redesigned its website to give it a more ‘international’ look, but has continued to keep content free. According to Rahul Kansal, brand director, ‘The Times of India’, “It is better to reach out to a wider audience through free content and recover revenues through advertising. This has always been our belief at ‘The Times of India’. I suspect that both ‘NYT’ and ‘WSJ’ will eventually make their content free. In fact, all information will be free online.”

However, there is another school of thought which believes that premium content will find readers willing to pay. Arun Natesh, general manager, marketing, ‘Business Standard’, says, “There is definitely a subscription model for delivering specific information to the reader’s inbox. Also, archived information that is delivered to a reader is a small price to pay for the effort that goes into searching for it. It all depends on how you package the information.”

For now, not many success stories of paid subscriptions exist on the web – except for ‘WSJ’, of course. Moreover, in a country like India where free online content is taken for granted, getting readers to pay for news is a long way off.