September 19, 2007
New York TImes Opens Archives--for Ad Revenue

An interesting piece of self-reflection from The New York Times yesterday. For those of you who are interested in the newspaper business, or just interested readers of The Times, you may have already seen that the site has decided to release most of its archives from behind the pay wall.

I'm intrigued anytime a newspaper decides to report on itself, but this piece, by journalist Richard Perez-Pena, is particularly open about the business rationale behind the decision. Rather than try to hide behind the facade of a good-hearted wish to make the archive open to the masses of students, researchers, and interested citizens, the article highlights the real reason: making the archives available openly is simply more profitable for the Times than keeping them as gated content in a pay-per-view model.

The article says:

The Times said the project had met expectations, drawing 227,000 paying subscribers -- out of 787,000 over all -- and generating about $10 million a year in revenue...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 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.

No doubt, the Times is in a special class when it comes to being a newspaper of record for the whole country, so that their archives would be particularly valuable. The ad revenue this site should generate, then, is particularly impressive.

I have written about questions of value of a newspaper archives in the past, such as this post from back last October, prompted by a discussion with newspaper editor Ellen Foley. "Foley also said during the forum that the newspaper couldn't digitize its content and disposed of electronic versions of all their stories every day because they didn't have room to store the pages, instead creating microfishe, which caused an outcry from MIT students about how cheap storage space is, considering how little space text takes up."

What would these same archive questions mean for a much smaller paper, like the smaller rural weekly papers out there? See this post for more.

These continued questions about creating a business model around Long Tail content is an important one, both because the paper wants to find ways to continue to generate revenue from its articles after the initial day of publication, but also because the depth of a "paper of record" can provide continued value for otherwise-struggling newspapers, even if there's major questions about how to maximize those profits.

Does the approach of big papers work the same for smaller ones?

One thing I do know: the move is good news for our site, then, since it means that all the Times stories we have linked to here won't be hidden behind a pay wall any longer. But the implications for the business model of journalism may be yet to be determined.