My plan to save the New York Times

The Times, as every knows, needs to find a way to exploit its big advantages: huge amounts of traffic, high quality content (I know, I know — but grant me that one for the sake of argument), and loyal readers who are affluent, interested in the world, and literate enough to discuss it thoughtfully. Most websites would die to have the traffic and the particular readership that the Times does!

This may be totally silly, but it occurred to me today that the New York Times should enable users to set up free blogs on their site (my web address could be thisbetheblog.nytimes.com instead of thisbetheblog.wordpress.com!), and allow people to rant and rave basically unmonitored. They should make the set-up process incredibly easy so that the Times’s current readership — which is rumored to skew somewhat older than your average blogger — could start pontificating within 60 seconds, with no technical knowledge required.

The Times could place maybe one or two relatively unobnoxious targeted ads on each blog (using Google’s creepy and imperfect algorithms to match the ad with the content of the particular blog), or maybe have no ads on the blogs at all. The real revenue would come because a column to the right of the blog would automatically display links to other pages at nytimes.com — the big news of the day, perhaps, and articles from the archives that are relevant to keywords in the blog posts, and so on. It would be like mixing WordPress.com or the Daily Kos with the pre-existing newspaper site.

What’s the downside? Well, there is the cost of all the server space required to host all the new user-generated content. And there is the cost of employing tech people to design and manage the blog platform, and non-tech people to handle complaints about potentially libelous or illegal blog posts and comments. But the Times already has these problems, because allowing users to comment on its current blogs and articles requires a lot of server space, and it requires a lot of staff to moderate all the comments that people are leaving.

If the big shots at the Times just threw caution to the wind and allowed their site to become a free speech zone with very light oversight, it probably wouldn’t require much more staffing than they need now, since they now appear to have a human being approve every reader comment one by one (I could be wrong about this, but that’s my impression). Instead of half-assedly allowing users to comment, but stifling the discussion by moderating and delaying the posting of the comments, they should just open the gates wide and let anyone say whatever the hell they want. I doubt the Times would be liable for every word people wrote, but their lawyers can figure out what sorts of disclaimers or oversight are needed to protect the Times Company from liability.

Another downside is that this would require a transformation from a newspaper company that has a big internet presence into an internet company that also puts out a newspaper. (I’m reminded of the joke that GM is a health insurance company that also happens to sell cars on the side.) This transformation would require a big leap of faith on the part of upper management, and also a change in the company’s culture. It’s not at all clear they’re up to it, but if the alternative is dying a slightly slower death than all the other newspapers in the country, they had better try.

Why would anyone want to blog at nytimes.com instead of a site like WordPress or Blogger or Daily Kos or its right-leaning equivalent, whatever that may be? Well, some current nytimes.com readers (and there are a lot!) might like the idea of having their blog hosted at the Times’ website, where it would attract the attention other nytimes.com users. The hardest part about blogging is getting people to your site in the first place, and having one’s blog integrated into a pre-existing website with a huge amount of traffic would be a great help on that front. The Times could add a feature on the front page of nytimes.com, or at individual articles, which directed readers to user-generated content that was about the same topic. Also, as I said above, there may be nytimes.com readers who aren’t normally the type of people who would go set up their own blog, but if the Times told them they could do easily it in less than a minute and have it be integrated into the nytimes.com site, they might give it a try.

The bottom line is that nytimes.com gets a huge about of traffic, but a lot of those people come to read one or two articles and then move on. Not a lot of ad revenues there! The company needs to figure out a way to suck people in more, so that once they land at an nytimes.com page, they are likely to dawdle at the site for hours, viewing page after page. I propose turning the site into a big internet playground where you can spend all weekend reading articles, reading blogs, commenting on articles, writing your own blog, commenting on other people’s blogs.

It might be a total failure, but it might be a huge success, and compared with the cost of producing and distributing a daily newspaper, I think it could be a pretty low-risk venture. If WordPress and the Daily Kos are able to stay solvent based entirely on user-generated content, how expensive can server space really be? (Admittedly, I know nothing about wordpress’s finances or business plan — I think it may even be a non-profit freeware type of company. Still, they pay for the cost of hosting millions of blogs for free somehow, so I can’t imagine it’s a very expensive thing to do in the grand scheme of things.)

Am I crazy?

UPDATE: Or, alternatively, I guess the Times can try to survive by hoping that more billionaires with no newspaper experience keeping buying up shares hoping to make a quick (or not-so-quick) profit:

Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican telecommunications billionaire, and his family have acquired a 6.4 percent stake in The New York Times Company, he revealed in a regulatory filing on Wednesday.

Mr. Slim, sometimes called the wealthiest man in the world, controls cellular and landline phone companies, and has major investments in retail, construction, banking, insurance, railroads and mining. In March, Forbes magazine estimated his fortune at $60 billion.

His spokesman, Arturo Elias, was traveling and not available for comment. His primary company, Teléfonos de México, declined to comment.

The Times Company also declined comment. Its stock closed on Wednesday at $13.96 a share, down 4 cents, giving the Slim family’s 9.1 million shares a value of $127 million.

Hey, why not? That strategy worked wonders for the LATimes, right? Oh, wait…

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5 responses to “My plan to save the New York Times

  1. It’s an appealing idea. Why don’t you float it at the Times?

  2. Because I don’t work there anymore and I don’t own stock in the company anymore. Hell, I don’t even subscribe to it anymore. I hardly even read it anymore.

    More seriously, I’m sure they have plenty of consultants and committees and corporate retreats that spend all their time brainstorming about how to thrive in the internet age. If they haven’t noticed sites like Daily Kos and thought about whether some similar model would work at nytimes.com, then they clearly wouldnt be able to pull it off anyway. It’s just a thought that crossed my mind this morning, and since I’m no longer paying attention to politics, I figured I would write it up here. It’s actually really hard to think of things to write about! That’s why rank punditry is such an easy thing to fall back on…

  3. They certainly are thinking hard, often, and out of the box about what to do. Just today I noticed that they now fold the Escapes section above the Weekend Arts, rather than below.

  4. “…the New York Times should enable users to set up free blogs on their site…and allow people to rant and rave basically unmonitored.”

    Sort of the way they do now with Brooks and Kristol and Bumiller…

  5. Never mind all those ‘great minds’ brainstorming and corporate retreating — no newspaper does this (that I know of), and smart and obvious ideas are often the ones that people don’t come up with. I’d write them.

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