In September 2005 the The New York Times took the then-unusual and still controversial step of placing its opinion columnists' contributions behind the subscription "wall" of a new service called TimesSelect, charging $50 per year to access that content and, at the time, little else. Since then, however, subscription benefits have increased significantly, with one-off opinion articles from guest editors like Ted Koppel and now a set of unique blogs offering a far greater proverbial bang for your buck (full disclosure: I am a current subscriber).
Take writer Douglas Coupland's recently established blog, "Time Capsules". A published author and now screenplay writer, Mr. Coupland chronicles the travails of book touring with dry wit and a sharp intellect. Whether decrying bookstores that force him to read without a lectern — it hides the inevitable fidgeting — or listing his "five fun secrets about hotels" (#2: have a friend phone ahead to tell them that Lord Coupland has a few special requests), his entries are both better informed and less egotistical than much of what constitutes our modern blogosphere. And besides, where else can you read about book touring?
Of course, one could argue, as many have, that none of this should cost anything at all. "Information wants to be free," as the saying goes. Unfortunately, the diminishing importance of the so-called "mainstream media" (pejoratively referred to as the "MSM" by many bloggers), especially to young people weaned on MTV and Comedy Central's The Daily Show, means that ad revenues are now insufficient to support the staff and resources of newspapers like the Times.
Publications have responded to this new world in wildly varying ways, with the Wall Street Journal adopting a subscription model for all its content while the Washington Post elects to subsist exclusively on home delivery subscriptions and ad revenue for the time being (to its detriment, I think). I see the TimesSelect program as a middle road, allowing the Times to grow its content offerings without fear of losings its ability to fund the kind of high-quality journalism that readers have come to expect, all the while keeping much of what the paper produces available without charge.
And it is of high quality. For all the talk of "citizen journalists" making traditional media outlets obsolete, the fact remains that most private citizens simply lack the funding and professionalism of career reporters and editors. It takes time to create the sorts of articles one sees in newspapers, and the rapid-fire nature of blogging is ill-suited to the extended development times that characterize professional journalism. So, at least in my eyes, while the profusion of blogs might threaten to overwhelm the long-dominant medium of the newspaper, the strength of the Times' and other papers' reputations and resources places them far above their new-media challengers.
Consequently, it is heartening to see the Times continuing its longstanding journalistic traditions while demonstrating an embrace of technological change in the aforementioned blogs and other initiatives like podcasts and multimedia content, which for me generate optimism about not only TimesSelect but also the strength of the newspaper (and newspapers) in general. Is TimesSelect ideal? Of course not. But it's probably the best we can hope for in this imperfect world.