The pop-economics book Free by Chris Anderson gets a fair consideration from Virginia Postrel in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. The placement is highly appropriate, since the New York Times has leaked the news that it might begin charging for web content next month.
I understand the appeal of a payment system to support the Times’ massive journalistic infrastructure, and if Times management does actually go forward with this ambitious plan they will be applauded by many within the newspaper and publishing communities who yearn to see an online payment model succeed.
The New York Times has a history of seeking out innovative revenue models for its website. Under the leadership of Martin Nisenholtz, who has remained at the helm of Times digital operations for a remarkable 14 years, NYTimes.com pioneered the “demographics first” approach in the mid-1990s, putting up content for free but requiring registration information designed to attract advertisers. This kind of experimentation should be encouraged, but after careful thought I am sticking with the conclusion I expressed in my tweet above. If the New York Times puts its web content behind a payment wall, that will be the end of my lifelong relationship with the New York Times.
The reason is simple: excluding the mass online audience, the idle surfers and linkers who won’t be bothered to pay for access, would irreparably change the nature of the New York Times. Currently the best of the American mass-audience newspapers, the Times would become instead a private sheet for “influentials”, news junkies and insiders. Maybe this would help their profit-loss situation (requiring payment works out well for the Wall Street Journal, after all). But it won’t help their content.
It is the nature of journalism to seek readers, and today readers are accustomed to free, instant access. Fifteen years ago, the New York Times was able to sell itself to a mass audience while requiring payment (for print editions, since that’s all we had then). That favorable situation has been lost forever — no decision that Bill Keller and the New York Times executive board can make will allow the company to remain a mass market publication and also require payment for access. They are at a crossroads — will they remain a mass market publication, or will they require payment for access? They can’t have both.
The New York Times has the right to turn their back on the mass market if they so choose, and I would treat that choice with (sad) respect. I would, however, stop reading the paper. A closed publication would simply not appeal to me. I guess I’ll be spending a lot more time at the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish if this happens. To tell you the truth, I’ll barely notice the absence of Times news reporting from my life, and I will be honestly happy to never have to look again at their mediocre and highly Yankees-centric sports reporting. But I would miss their culture/arts reporting — books, film, theatre, art — immensely. This was always the New York Times greatest strength, in my opinion, and a payment wall in front of the daily Arts section and the weekend Arts & Leisure/New York Times Book Review would be a significant loss to the world.
Look at just two examples: the New York Times was absolutely instrumental in the early popular discoveries of Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. Can a newspaper with a cultural legacy like this continue to thrive behind a payment wall? I don’t think so.
Still, I’d get over it. I’m not interested in reading arts/cultural coverage that only “elite” readers are reading. That’s why I didn’t care much about the snooty New York Observer (the cherished newspaper of the Upper East Side moneyed set), and I won’t care much about the New York Times if they decide to follow the New York Observer’s audience model.
Meanwhile, let’s look at today’s Book Review. If the New York Times is so far above the quality level of all that “free” stuff you find on blogs and lesser newspapers online, why is Curtis Sittenfeld’s cover of Maile Meloy’s book of short stories Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It so badly written? Sittenfeld seems to be imitating the chatty, unfocused tenor of a typical MySpace entry. She tells us that she is now in Maile Meloy’s “fan club”, and that “whatever she writes next, I’ll gladly read it”. Yippee, but this is supposed to be literary criticism. Towards that effect, Sittenfeld’s article sometimes strains amateurishly for an academic tone, helping us understand what the word “restraint” means:
Though it might seem strange to praise a writer for the things she doesn’t do, what really sets Meloy apart is her restraint. She is impressively concise, disciplined in length and scope.
More often, she just spins, in clumsy sentences that lack a fixed narrative position:
Only one story, about the murdered daughter, really makes you want to slit your wrists; and, indeed, a wry humor appears regularly.
It just goes on and on:
Almost all her characters are flawed: lawyers, Montana residents, unfaithful spouses …
Is the bit about Montana residents supposed to be a joke? Maybe, but it’s hard to tell. This article would make a fine entry in a below-average literary blog, but it’s not good enough to ask readers to pay for, not when they can get content just as good or better elsewhere. If the NY Times moves to a payment model, careless work like this will have to go.
Fortunately, there are many better pieces in this weekend’s Book Review, like Michael Meyer’s look back at The Ugly American, a once highly influential fictional portrait of inept and offensive American diplomats at work written by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick in 1958. There’s also a good David Orr column on the life and poetry of Thom Gunn, and an approving look by Peter Keepnews at How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald, a book currently on my next-to-read pile.
There’s even a decent piece by Susann Cokal (who I will always remember as the author of probably the most vapid review I’ve ever read in the NYTBR) on Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress, apparently an Ahab’s Wife approach to the life of Charles Dickens. I’m sorry to learn from Cokal’s article that Dickens had such an unhappy marriage, but I’m glad the critic rises to the occasion and produces a readable and informative piece. I’m not going to join Susann Cokal’s fan club just yet, but I look forward to the chance to read her again. I hope I’ll have that chance.