On Being Up Front With Your Readers

‘Times’ Is a Changin’ Towards Niche-Audience Approach

“All of a sudden we are doing something we have never been able to do at The New York Times. We are creating this highly interactive experience using our online platform.”
—Felice Nudelman, Times executive director of education

Thanks go to Matt Humphrey, CMO of BLR–Business & Legal Resources, for posting last week on the SIPA online marketing forum about a recent New York Times blog post concerning college admissions that “linked to a page inviting [readers] to pay $225 for an online course, ‘Introduction to College Admissions,’ taught by the blog author” for the Times.

Arthur Brisbane, who writes a column for the Times called The Public Editor, responded with a 26-paragraph op-ed, complete with reader feedback. Basically, the Times has jumped on the selling bandwagon (thud); they are just not quite as adept at the logistics yet, so it looks bad. The blog writer, Jacques Steinberg, teaches a course—for $225—that is available through The New York Times Knowledge Network, a growing enterprise that began in 2008 and now includes 100 courses. In the past, these courses had all been presented through other universities or entities. No longer.

Wrote Brisbane: “This year, though, The Times launched a phase of the venture in which the curriculum is produced entirely by The Times newsroom. The Times-only program currently comprises 12 courses in three subject areas: journalism and writing; science of health; and parenting teens.”

As Nudelman says, they want in on that action now and have created the platform to do it.

SIPA member Roger B. Wilson, Jr., of The Conference Department, Inc., wrote on our marketing forum: “I’d love to see what the sales numbers were on this offer. Seems abrupt to jump from interest in a journalist’s story to buying his secret sauce at $225 a pop—maybe they should have offered an opt-in to a brilliant free white paper with the promise that if you download it you will be on the invitation list for the next exclusive online course, taught by the author.”

“In sum, The Times’s view of this issue is that linking to a Knowledge Network course from a blog is a way to extend the paper’s journalism and to offer, at a price, deeper content to a self-selecting audience,” Brisbane wrote. “It is a bit like what will happen next year when the company launches its pay wall for the Web site.”

As Humphrey points out for us, Brisbane’s last paragraph is quite relevant to SIPA publishers: “I believe the editorial move in the direction of subject matter like this—college admissions is a very narrow topic area—may indicate that news judgment is changing. As transformational technology makes the mass audience less lucrative and a collection of niche audiences more so, editorial content may naturally drift toward the latter. The Times will want to guard against this drift.”

As Greg Krehbiel from Kiplinger also pointed out, we can only hope that Brisbane is correct in his assessment about the lucrative nature of “niche audiences.” Time will tell. But judging from the reader comments from Brisbane’s column—most are a bit distressed over the abrupt change in tone—it appears that readers/customers/buyers just want you to be up front with them.

It may be a hard line to draw, but people seem to know when you’ve crossed it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Please pass along to me or the SIPA online forums any article, blog, marketing pitch, advertisement, etc., that you think would be of interest to SIPA members and others in the specialized information industry. I do my best to keep up, but it’s a big world out there. It would be great to do a weekly Media Watch with positive news about a member or the industry. So PASS IT ON!

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