A Quick Conversation With New York Times Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal: “Information Isn’t Free”

Posted by: Jon Fine on October 17, 2008

Andrew Rosenthal, who’s run the Times’ editorial page since January of last year, spoke at lunch at the ANA convention today. And, if I may be simultaneously self-interested and lazy, my wife and mediabistro.com founder Laurel Touby twittered his whole speech, which you should check out—it currently starts on this page. As for me, I buttonholed him after lunch with a simple question:

Why did Times Select—the paper’s abortive attempt to charge readers for online access to its columnist—fail?

He said: “It couldn’t get big enough.”

I said: 700,000 customers (the figure Rosenthal used in his speech--although others have reported that not all of them were paying full freight--isn’t big enough?

He said: “It’s OK, but it’s a week’s worth of readers for Maureen Dowd. I said, ‘I want all of our readers back.’”

Shortly after this, I made a (lame and overused) joke about how I was blogging directly from my pen and paper, since, you know, information wants to be free. To which he had a quick response:

“Information is not free! Nothing online is free except for what we do, not email"-- not exactly true, that--"not shoes, not pornography . . . I know I sound very Pollyannaish. But [what we do is important]"

Well, sure, I agreed. But how could you possibly start charging people to read the nytimes.com now?

“Maybe ten years ago we [as in, many newspapers and other content sites] could have done something--held hands and jumped off the cliff together.

We didn’t.

It’s the biggest mistake we ever made.”

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Reader Comments

Don

October 20, 2008 09:13 PM

10 years ago, or 12 years ago now, I put together an proposal for my local free weekly where I came up with all kinds of ideas for newspapers to put in place-- mostly really basic ideas like national classifieds, filtering on employment classifieds, vast databases of movie and restaurant reviews, etc. I often wonder what would have happened had they implemented those ideas in 1996 instead of waiting until 2000? I remember the editor, long since fired, just nodding and smiling and telling me no one could read a website on the subway. Uh... they can now. Good times, good times... I mean, bad time NOW to be a journalist, but it was a good time back then to be a programmer.

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The media, entertainment and marketing worlds continue to shapeshift on a near-daily basis, as new forms arise and old assumptions erode. Where is it all going? No one really knows. But on this blog BusinessWeek’s media writers Tom Lowry and Ron Grover promise to provide ample helpings of scoop, provocation, and sharp analysis as they track and annotate this constantly changing terrain.

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