Valuing Librarians
Means, Not Ends

Finding the Evidence That We Want

I've seen quite a bit of chatter along the lines of this post on LISNews celebrating the demise of Times Select:  "The message many companies are learning?  People expect the Web to be free."

Quite exhilarating for those who (like Chuck, the commenter on that post) who "have been in the free information business all along."  Pity that it's the wrong message.

Those who actually bother to read the article announcing the change will see that, in fact, a third of the Times' online subscribers, nearly a quarter of a million people, were willing to pay for that content.  Times Select didn't fail because people expect the web to be free.  It didn't fail at all.

People have short memories.  It was only a few years ago that it was a truism that "nobody has figured out how to make money off the internet except for Amazon and the porn producers."  Lots of people were trying to figure out how to make advertising work on the web and nobody was making much money from it.

Google changed that.  Somebody finally figured out how to make, not just some money, but a ton of money from online advertising.  Ad people are smart and quick, and they've been learning fast.  The NYT didn't pull the plug on Times Select because it was a failure -- they did it because the terrain has changed and online advertising models have matured to the point where they now have confidence that they can make a lot more money by selling ads than by selling the content directly.

This has nothing to do with some idealistic belief that "people expect the web to be free."  (Except, of course, in the trivial sense that all people always would rather get things free than pay for them -- but this has nothing to do with the web.)

What fascinates me is that none of this will change the minds of those who believe that it "was a loser of a strategy to begin with."  It doesn't matter if Times Select was successful according to the measures set by those who ran it.  To those who believed that it was antithetical to their view of how the web works it was a failure of an idea to being with, it would always be a failure (no matter how much money it pulled in), and the fact that the Times has made this change is clear evidence that it was a bad idea and that they were right all along.  (And I guess those 227,000 subscribers are weird abberations who simply are not behaving the way people are supposed to behave...  on the web.)

For the record, I was really disappointed when Times Select was introduced.  I thought it was a bad idea, I didn't think it would work, I never signed up and I'm surprised at how good the final numbers turned out to be.  I'm glad they've made the change. I just don't think it proves that information must be free, and that people won't pay for content.  I think it proves that I was wrong.   

But I am starting to get pretty annoyed at that full page American Express ad that I have to wade through now, every time I want to check the news.


Comments

Kathleen (LibraryNation)

What's your take on all the ad-filtering plugins for browsers these days? I myself use Adblock Plus on Safari, and my partner says he prefers a more intensive and hands-on filter that he uses for Safari.

I've heard quite a bit of squelching from the advertising blogs I read about how these filters are going to ultimately mean the "end of free content" because ads will cease to be effective.

Although I personally detest ads, I do understand that by blocking those ads, I'm essentially using content that I haven't "paid for" (with my eyeballs glued to the ad). Is that okay, morally/ethically speaking?

Kathleen (LibraryNation)

Sorry, that's Adblock plus on Firefox. I suppose I'm marketing here... oh the irony!

T Scott

I don't know, but if I had to bet, I'd put my money on the advertisers. I think they'll figure out a way to stay a step or two ahead of the blockers (and one might also hypothesize that the number of people who are going to take the trouble to aggressively use ad filters is always going to be small enough to have only a negligible effect on the overall market anyway). TIVO hasn't put much of a dent in television advertising yet, as far as I can tell.

I'm uneasy about the prospect of advertising being the economic engine for more and more content, but I don't really see that overall trend changing (although it will not be equally successful in all market segments).

As far as the ethics of it, I don't think you're any more obligated to let online ads grab your eyeballs than I am to read the ads in Rolling Stone (fascinating as some of those ads might be). I don't know how much this is still the case, but many libraries use to routinely have all of the ads in the journals that they bound removed before binding. I doubt that anyone ever gave a thought to the fact that those ads were helping to keep the subscription prices down.

MarkD

Funny, I never signed up for Times Select either. But I agree with you Scott. The end of Times Select proves nothing as far as I can see.

Content on the net is not a right. So there is no reason to expect it to be free. I am not so worried about overt advertising being the economic engine. I do, however, worry about covert advertising.

Marcus

I was one of the 277,000 TS subscribers at one point, actually one of the first. A little-discussed fact lately is that TS had lots of exclusive online content--articles by Stanley Fish and Judith Warner, and a photo essay by Errol Morris (for example). So it wasn't just a way to lock Maureen Down behind a wall (although that was part of it).

In addition to the extra content, you could search the archives. Plus, the Times Select pages were very pleasing aesthetically.

I'm certainly happy that all this is now available for free. But it's important to know that Times Select was "value-added" content to some extent. In the library world, we tell publishers that if they become open access they can still make money with value-added products. That's sort of what the Times was trying to do.

More broadly, I totally agree that this discussion is another example of how people try to meld inconvenient facts to fit preconceived notions. We all do this, and we all should try to guard against it.

To quote and "mash-up" Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (which I'm currently reading thanks to your encouragement on this blog, Scott):

"In science [or in Times Select commentary]...novelty [i.e., the fact that ads make more sense online now] emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance [bloggers unite! Take down the Times!!], against a background provided by expectation [we always knew that Times Select was going to fail, and now that it's over we get to say why]."

Marcus

PS: I typed too quickly--I see that I was one of the 227,000 Times Select readers, not 277,000!

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