Thursday, May 19, 2005

The greed of the Times: All the news that's fit to pay for?

As you may already have heard, The New York Times -- the greatest newspaper in the history of the world (insert appropriate sarcasm here) -- will soon be adopting a subscription-based service (TimesSelect) for its Op-Ed columns and online archives, as well as for other sundry features. The rest of the online version will remain free -- thank God! -- but, as of September, it'll cost $49.95 per year for those features. Now, I think this is a terrible idea. It may or not be a good business idea, but, for my purposes, what it means is that The Reaction will no longer be able to link to those formidable Op-Ed columnists. Unless I buy the subscription, which, given my current mood, seems unlikely. More, bloggers generally won't be able to link to them, and I doubt that many bloggers will shell out $49.95 when so much else is available for free on the internet. The Washington Post and the other (L.A.) Times, for example, not to mention the blogosphere itself. Admittedly, I did buy the online subscription to The New Republic, but that's the exception. I stopped reading Time when it went to subscription, and I only read The Globe and Mail, Canada's leading newspaper, because we have a subscription at my office.

Anyway, Timothy Noah, who writes Slate's Chatterbox column, came up with an interesting game. He calculated that the value of the Op-Ed column feature of TimesSelect is about half of the subscription price, or $25 -- the online archive is worth the other half (the other features, such as video, are, in his view, worthless). So that means that $25 may be divided among the columnists themselves, namely, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, Bob Herbert, Nicholas Kristof, Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, and John Tierney. The average would $3.13. But, as Noah puts it, they're "a pretty uneven bunch". So he invited readers to submit their allocations. I'd likely prefer to keep my $25, but here's what I came up with:

Brooks: $2.55 -- A decent conservative and a respectable Republican, at least, and capable of dialogue with the other side. I've heard more than enough about the exurbs, and he does tend to exaggerate from time to time, not least when, in a recent column (which I would have to pay for now, since older columns aren't free), he claimed that the Republicans' electoral success is very much a reflection of the diversity of the conservative movement. Well, sort of. But not really. At least he's consistently interesting.

Dowd: $1.15 -- Behold, her shtick is dead. That's what a complete lack of originality will do to you. I used to like her, back when her shtick was new to me, and, as a Kerry supporter, I found her humorous deconstruction of the Bushies last year to be more than a little amusing. But how often can you make fun of Wolfowitz's name and parody Cheney's Dr. Evil persona and analyze Bush's Freudian insecurities before it all just gets boring? Well, it's boring. Period.

Friedman: $4.40 -- A must-read, if only for the talking points of the day (geo-green, flat earth, etc.). He's a liberal who irritates liberals, but that's probably a good thing. There's a lot of name-dropping, and his columns all follow the same simplistic formula, but, in the end, he's an engaging and at times fascinating writer who sheds light on some pretty complex issues. Like a few of his colleagues, the I-know-best arrogance seeps through (more like a flood, sometimes), though I suspect that that comes with the territory (who wouldn't be immodest as a Times columnist?), and at least he can back it up with his impressive knowledge of the global stage.

Herbert: $1.45 -- Even if you agree with him, there's just nothing at all inspiring there, just some old-school liberalism and a self-righteous sense of social justice. He'd be fine at the Post, where he could blend in among a number of diverse columnists, but at the Times he just sticks out for his mediocrity. I'd like to give him more, but I just can't.

Kristof: $4.30 -- Profoundly arrogant, almost a one-man American conscience, but he brings attention to where it is needed most, the forgotten parts of the world that lack much of a voice. His columns on Darfur earlier this year were particularly impressive -- and truly terrifying. He's not as good when he turns back to the domestic scene, but he's a solid international reporter.

Krugman: $4.35 -- Repetitive and at times unduly pessimistic, but his analytical efforts are nothing if not admirable. I particularly liked his columns on Bush's Texas days last year -- it's amazing to me how Bush has managed to avoid serious investigations into his repeated failures in the oil industry, his association with Enron-like accounting practices, his rescue by poppy's buddies, and the various shenanigans that surrounded his ownership of the Texas Rangers. If I were an economist, I might appreciate Krugman even more, but, as it is, I try to read him fairly often. Click here for more.

Rich: $6.75 -- Brilliant cultural exegesis, whatever his critics say. The best of the Times and the columnist whose work I look forward to more than any other in any publication. I do acknowledge that he occasionally descends into repetition, one-sidedness, and an excessive effort to drive his points home, but these flaws do not detract from the high-level interdisciplinary fusion he regularly brings to his columns. It's good to see him back on the Op-Ed page. I had thought of allocating him an even $20 -- he's that good -- but I need to be fair to his colleagues. Click here for more.

Tierney: $0.05 -- He's got a lot to prove. Is it too late to bring Safire back? At least he had something to say.

In the end, much of it comes down to personal preference (of course). I prefer cultural criticism to economics and international affairs, and that means allocating more to Rich than to, say, Krugman and Friedman. I don't know, can I live without my weekly dose of Frank Rich? It'll be tough. I'll just have to decide if he and his lesser colleagues are worth the $49.95.

What a stupid, stupid thing to do.

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