Free vs. Smart Money

I think we’re witnessing a “New Coke”-level debacle on the Web this week.

The bean counters have apparently taken over the New York Times online site… and driven a stake through its heart.

Let me explain: You remember the New Coke thing, don’t you? Back in the early nineties (you know, last century), Coca Cola — one of the most profitable businesses in the universe — got bored with success. And they took their flagship product — Coke — and futzed with the formula.

Why? No reason. There was no hue and cry for a new flavor, no urgency on any front.

People hated the new fizz. Just loathed it. And, despite having sunk something like the gross national product of Brazil into the marketing blitz… the marketing geniuses were forced to bring back the Old Coke.

None of this surprised me at all.

See, as a veteran freelancer, I often get ushered into the deep, dank inner sanctums of a client’s business. I get to see where the bodies are buried, how the books are juggled, and what the real scuttlebutt is on the bottom line.

I used to be astonished at what I found. (For example… when a typical businessman quotes his most recent profit figures to you… you can pretty much cut them in half. If you’re interested in what’s real, as opposed to what sounds good, that is.)

I am astonished no longer. I expect most large companies to implode at some point… with resulting damage that may or may not be repairable. I’ve just seen it happen too often.

Sometimes it’s like a slow-motion train wreck. Other times it’s like watching someone calmly uncork a hand grenade and swallow it, smiling.

Our culture, for reasons I can’t yet fathom, is rife with a twisted paradigm: Sometimes, success equals insanity.

Here’s a very recent example: Up until Monday, the New York Times online site had a measureable readership of something like 39 million.

I was one. My morning routine included stops at… the drudge report… the Washington Post site… the Wall Street Journal online version… and the New York Times.

Plus, an assorted menu of other sites, as time allowed.

All, except the WSJ, were free.

Forget about the percieved politics — I read the Times for the quality of the writing. I’m a journalism cult fan. I liked the columnists… or rather, I had LEARNED to like them, after three or four years of reading them online.

Now, however, that game is over. The bean counters at somehow decided that the best and most wonderful thing they could ever do… was to charge for access to the columnists. You can still see the headlines and most of the breaking news for free… but for the “good” stuff, you gotta pony up.

Um… no thanks.

Here’s the gamble they took on: Were 39 million people reading the columnists because the writing is too important to miss… or were they reading the columnists because they were good… and free?

My bet’s on the free part.

And if I’m right… the Times just sent 30 million readers out into the blogosphere… where they will quickly discover tons of writers JUST as clever and JUST as savvy and JUST as tuned in as the best of the Times’ columnists.

It’s like the movie star who gets so full of himself, he figures he can indulge in any old movie he cares to slap together… and his “fans” will flock.

Result: Bomb.

Dead box office.

Happens so often, it’s a cliche.

Businesses do it, too. It’s called hubris. You get really, really full of yourself… think you can do no wrong… and guess what?

You’re toast.

Now, the Wall Street Journal understands their market better — they CAN charge for online access and be worth it. Hard to get what they offer otherwise. It can be done… but they have the most efficient delivery of what you want, all neat and tidy and in one spot.

Worth a few bucks.

But the Times? Fuhgetaboutit. They have a great history, but they’re still only as good as their last issue. Day to day to day.

And the Post is just as good (and better in many ways). Also, still free.

We’ll see where this goes. The early reviews on the Times’ move are not good — no one over there, apparently, bothered to imagine how this whorish move would play with the hoi palloi.

What is information “worth”, anyway?

Very intriguing question, worthy of your attention… especially if you’re in the information business (as most Web-based businesses are). I’ll post on that subject in a few days…

Until then, stay frosty.

John Carlton

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  • mark grove says:

    Yeah, we all think we can do no wrong changing the formula that works in our online or offline biz. Then make more money.

    Doesn’t always work that way. A lot of times it blows up in our faces despite spending boatloads on marketing.


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