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An Open Letter to New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Chairman Sulzberger, if you seek peace in cyberspace, if you seek prosperity for your company, if you seek to spread ideas online: Come here to this TimesSelect gate! Mr. Sulzberger, tear down this pay wall!

I understand the fear of losing print subscribers to a free website at NYTimes.com, and the pain of division in your own newsroom, where columnists yearn to roam free in the blogosphere of opinions. To be sure, your business must resist the expansion of free Internet news portals such as Google News and Topix.net. So you must maintain profit margins of unassailable strength. Yet we seek free and open access to some of the great minds of our generation — the Times columnists — so we must strive to reduce paid walls around us online.

Beginning 10 years ago, the Internet challenged the pre-eminent journalism of newspapers with a grave new threat — hundreds of websites and weblogs that gave a global platform to everyday citizens, capable of fact-checking every newspaper in the U.S. The Times responded by first challenging this growing menace and refused to bargain in earnestness.

But through it all, the alliance of bloggers stood firm, and I invite those who protested then to protest today and join with me in asking the Times to do the right thing and abolish TimesSelect to the history books of bad Internet business decisions.

We must remember a crucial fact: Bloggers and newspaper journalists don’t mistrust each other because we each have a different medium for expression; we have different mediums for expression because we mistrust each other. And our differences are not about technology but about liberty for ideas.

The time is long past when the printing presses and mainstream broadcast outlets were the only platform for opinion journalism in America. Tens of millions of flowers are blooming with opinions reaching far and wide on the Internet; from grandmas to children, from transsexuals to rednecks, we all have a voice on blogs, podcasts and web pages. Despite all the economic pressures in the new media journalism world, the Times stands secure as a profitable company. And online business models are transforming the globe.

At the Los Angeles Times, at the Boston Herald, at Fortune Magazine, free content that was previously walled off by paid walls online has been given a rebirth for free. Throughout the online world, free content supported by online advertising is working miracle after miracle with economic growth.

A technological revolution is taking place — a revolution marked by rapid, dramatic advances in computers and telecommunications. But you know this all too well. At the New York Times Company’s News Media Group, online ad revenues were up 25% in April 2006, while ad revenues were up at your About.com division by an eye-popping 84.5%.

Mr. Sulzberger, only one set of high-profile editorial writers has not joined the community of free content online — the ones at your flagship newspaper. Yet in this age of redoubled economic growth online, of information and innovation, the New York Times faces a choice: It must make fundamental changes, or it will become obsolete.

My fellow Netizens, there are signs of hope. You at the Times did eventually decide to join the ranks of blog publishers. You decided to merge your online and print operations. And you admitted only last March that the jury is still out on the TimesSelect wall. “It is a bet,” you told The Rake. “But it’s a bet on the value of judgment, the value of insight, the value of experience.”

That bet goes against the movement in the online world toward open conversations and open discussion of the important topics of our times. The business minds at NYTimes.com went strongly against conventional wisdom with the idea of closed thought available only to those with the money to pay for a print or online subscription.

The height of foolishness was reached only recently with your announcement that the NYTimes.com website would offer a blog for the World Cup featuring viewpoints from soccer fans from around the world — behind the paid wall of TimesSelect.

Today thus represents a moment of hope. We in the blogosphere and in cyberspace stand ready to cooperate with the Times to promote true openness, to break down barriers that separate people, to create a free exchange of ideas. And surely there is no better place than at the Times newsroom, the meeting place of so many free-thinking minds.

So set Maureen Dowd free! Let David Brooks roam the nether regions of cyberspace! Uncuff Thomas Friedman to let him see the world is not flat! Break the chains that bind Nicholas Kristof! Let Frank Rich out to slum with the rest of us!

Let us usher in a new era, to seek a still fuller, richer fabric of opinion on the Internet. Together, let us maintain and develop ties between the journalism of the past and that of the future.

[This letter is a modified version of the famous speech given by U.S. President Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Germany, on June 12, 1987.]

UPDATE: Blogger and newspaper consultant Tim Porter defended TimesSelect and called my open letter “wrong-headed.” His main point is that the Times is doing the right thing by trying to make money online and shouldn’t give away its valuable content for free. My response is that of course journalists should be paid for their work, but that TimesSelect is the wrong way to do that. Online advertising is booming, and paid content online — whether general news or business news — is not.

UPDATE 2: I’ve written a follow-up post trying to clarify some of the points here. Plus I wonder whether the Times might take a different tack and just turn their columnists into bloggers.

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