BOSTON -- In the jungle of journalism, there are few bigger beasts than the lions of the New York Times' ( NYT) 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.?
Hmmm ... The New York Times reports in its latest monthly figures that TimesSelect had 763,000 subscribers by June. That's up about 21% just since the start of the year. The problem? As the company itself admits, most of those TimesSelect "subscribers" are actually just getting free access to the service because they already subscribe to the print version of the newspaper. The number willing to pay extra for access to TimesSelect? Just 29% -- a mere 221,000. That figure has risen a miserable 8,000 since the start of the year. Or, to put it simply, of the 12.5 million who read The New York Times online, fewer than one person in 57 has so far been willing to pay extra to read the Times' big-name columnists online. Let's allow that some of those print subscribers would pay for the service if they stopped getting the paper each morning. The numbers still aren't very impressive. What must make this especially galling for the newspaper establishment is that Sulzberger really isn't charging very much for access to TimesSelect. The fee, in fact, is almost insultingly low: $50 a year, or less than $1 a week. For that you get all the editorials, guest columns and, of course, the latest musings of Dowd, Rich and the gang.
We're talking a few cents a column. Less than a stick of gum. It isn't a lot. But still it's finding few takers. The numbers haven't improved much since I first discussed them in the Boston Herald last year. (That column, incidentally, earned me a feeble online hit job from the house journal of the newspaper establishment, the Columbia Journalism Review. It will be interesting to see what it says if TimesSelect closes.) There's an old journalism adage that "facts are sacred, but opinion is free." As the Times shows, in the age of the Internet, it seems to be truer than ever. The columnists have to compete with an army of bloggers, from the Huffington Post and Daily Kos on down, who give away their commentary and opinion for nothing. Meanwhile, anyone who writes online learns very quickly that the public wants facts and hard news, not just jawboning about what the secretary of state should say to the president of Iran. An example: This column, which smacks of an essay, will probably get a tiny fraction of the Web traffic that I'll get next time I file a straight news report on a hedge fund getting into trouble. Maybe Sulzberger should try giving away Maureen Dowd for free, and charging for hard news. Now that would be interesting.