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Times' Talking Heads Just Didn't Cut It

BOSTON -- In the jungle of journalism, there are few bigger beasts than the lions of the New York Times' (NYT - Get Report) op-ed page.

Maureen Dowd. Thomas Friedman. David Brooks. Paul Krugman.

So it says something that you can't even charge for their writings these days.

Speculation mounted this week that Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger is about to pull the plug on his two-year venture, TimesSelect, that kept his Op-Ed page and certain other features behind an online subscription wall.

The story was broken by News Corp. (NWS)-owned rival the New York Post, and the Times will neither confirm nor deny it. Spokeswoman Catherine Mathis told me the Times "continues to evaluate" TimesSelect, which is what spin doctors say when they don't want to say anything.

The speculation comes amid talk that Rupert Murdoch may also abandon the firewall that protects most content, not just opinion, at The Wall Street Journal. But of course, Murdoch is differently situated. He does not depend on his newspapers for his cashflow.

Nonetheless, if Sulzberger does pull the plug, it wouldn't be a surprise.

Not only is the TimesSelect plan deeply controversial, even among the Times' liberal elite fan base, it also isn't very successful.

As ever ... you can do the math.

The New York Times Web site is extremely popular. According to figures tracked by Nielsen/NetRatings, nytimes.com attracted about 12.5 million readers worldwide in June, the month with the most recent data. That's a huge global audience for news, and a large multiple of the Times' print circulation.

But how many of those online readers are willing to pay to go beyond the news and read the musings of the Times' greatest writers -- Krugman, Frank Rich, Dowd, et al.?

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