COLUMN-Dressing up the NYT with fins, chrome and glitter

by Reuters
Tuesday, 8 April 2014 23:16 GMT

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Jack Shafer

April 8 (Reuters) - At the beginning of April, the New York Times launched its "Times Premier" digital offering, accessible to Times home delivery subscribers for another $10 every four weeks, on top of what they are already paying. A bewildering product, it seeks to up-sell existing Times customers to a more deluxe version of the Times.

But isn't the Times supposed to be the deluxe version of the Times in the first place? It's one thing for Scientology to charge you thousands and thousands of dollars to reach the highest level only to find out there is another level, and to reach it you have to pay again. But Scientology is selling transcendence, and the last time I looked the Times is selling only the news and a useful status chit.

Lured by a free-trial offer, I immersed myself in Times Premier to assess its value - and believe that it can only get better. One of the privileges of Times Premier membership is "Times Insider," a room-inside-the-newsroom in which Times reporters and editors explain how the paper creates its wonderful variety of authoritative journalism. At present, Times Insider has obituary pro Margalit Fox on how Times obits are written, political reporter Jodi Kantor on the rejection notices a variety of Times reporters have received in their day, standards czar Philip B. Corbett on stylebook deliberations at the paper, and so on.

If the Times inner workings should appeal to any Times subscriber, it's me. But without exception, these hastily drawn impressions of newspaper life will neither satisfy the curiosity of Times enthusiasts nor excite in them a curiosity that can later be quenched. Isn't the Times sufficiently about the Times already that it doesn't need a companion section to explain itself to readers? Public Editor Margaret Sullivan does a reasonable job of that now, and her fair columns read with death-metal brutality compared to the happy talk published in Insider so far. Plowing through the Insider pieces, I was reminded of Michael Kinsley's old joke about his ambition to one day start a magazine titled "New Republic World: The Magazine for People Who Read the New Republic."

There are other benefits of signing up for Times Premier. You get two free electronic "TBooks" a month, assembled at the sausage-works from previously published Times stories. Does anybody really want this? Selling newspaper customers the same product twice and making them feel good about it ain't easy. Perhaps the biggest draw will be the "four-pack" of crossword puzzles that Premier promises. And maybe the video interviews of notable subjects, by Times reporters, ("TimesTalks") will attract fans, too. But a war-crimes tribunal must be convened to determine whose idea it was to take the Times Store, a gassy attempt to sell Times-themed crap, and inflate it into the Times Store Premier Boutique. A premium swag store? C'mon!

Can't travel first class? The Times wants to make regular "core" subscribers feel special, too, so they're being offered a new iPhone app ("NYT Now") and "What We're Reading," a twice-weekly compilation of reading recommendations "from around the Web" via email, and "TimesMachine," 129 years of Times archives preserved in facsimile form. I wonder what the conditions in "Times Steerage" will be like if the paper ever goes down-market. Will it be text-only or a color-tabloid frenzy?

A large appeal of reading the Times is membership in an "elite" demographic that reads the paper and can, therefore, discuss it with other elites over the water cooler and on Twitter. But the Premier, even if successful, will be such a narrow niche it's hard to imagine strivers signing up for it so they can converse with other Times ultra-fanatics. Also, the Times may come to regret having slapped the label "Premier" on this lame bundle of extras. What name will they end up using if they decide to go further upmarket, "Royale With Cheese"?

I'm more sympathetic than the average New York Times reader to the paper's efforts to make more money, as my love-hate relationship with it can only continue if the paper remains solvent. Can a press critic even exist if he doesn't have the Times to kick around? The Times certainly looks brainy now, for executing a paywall strategy that brings in a reputed $150 million a year from selling the same old product electronically.

But selling loyal customers - some who pay $700 a year - a premium version of the thing they're already consuming demands showmanship and moxie not present in the first iteration of Times Premier. I would suggest the paper try a cable television channel, except it already did that with Discovery Times, and it failed. Unless the paper's editors and its marketing department can come up with something more appealing, I think we've reached peak Times. (Jack Shafer)

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