19 September 2007

The Times Gets With The Times (Finally)

The "Gray Lady" at long last sings... sorry... metaphor masala...

The New York Times wakes up to find it's the 21st century, and has decided to unlock the paywall behind which lies some of its columnists, and its huge archive of news. The reason is pure business, combined with some originally poor thinking (or lack thereof), and a new realization about business in the UCaPP world that they have yet to truly make.
What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to NYTimes.com. These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.

“What wasn’t anticipated was the explosion in how much of our traffic would be generated by Google, by Yahoo and some others,” Ms. Schiller said.
I like that: "what wasn't anticipated." More truthful, I suspect, would be the following admission: "in our arrogance about our unique value in the world, we thought that we could get people to pay to read us, because there is nothing as good as the New York Times." Surprise!

But this move suggests a profound change in business that has become evident in many other instances. In an world shaped and structured by the Industrial Age, factories produced commodities and consumers paid for those commodities. It didn't matter whether the commodity was a manufactured good or a human-provided service, the worldview of modern business has been akin to: "I should get paid for what I do, produce or provide on a transaction-by-transaction basis. I should also get paid an amount that corresponds to what I believe to be my value - although my belief may often be relative to some real or fictitious market. Because my value is relative to that market, what I am paid is a proxy scorecard for my relative worth in society, and intimately connected to my self-worth as a person. He who dies with the most toys, wins."

In the complex world that is created by UCaPP conditions, none of that holds (although many still believe it). People and organizations are not necessarily compensated for what they do or produce; their compensation often comes indirectly in a way that decouples revenue from product. One obvious example is ad revenue, Google Adsense being a prime exemplar of this. Google provides search capabilities, among other applications, that they "give away for free." Adsense provides the revenue. NYT provides news, opinion and credibility (most of the time), and receives revenue through advertising. I give away a great deal of my writing, the text of keynote talks that I do, course materials, press and television interviews, and receive my income through diverse channels, most of which are very indirectly related to the various commodities that I give away, nominally for free. After all, it's important to recognize what business you're really in.

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