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Last week I tried to channel Ronald Reagan in asking New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to tear down the TimesSelect pay wall. But perhaps I tried too hard to stick to the original speech, without clarifying my points well. Plus, I wonder what would happen if the Times took the opposite tack, and turned all its columnists into bloggers — what would the benefits of such a move be?

First, some clarity on what I was trying to say in that open letter. Many people concluded that I was saying the Times Op-Ed columnists should work for free and not get paid.

“I wish automobile dealerships would provide me with their product gratis, ditto the restaurants where I eat my favorite meals and the theaters at which I pay for tickets to my favorite Broadway shows,” wrote James B. Flateau in a comment on the MediaShift post. “Instead, I actually have to pay for the services that I want to receive. Like them, newspapers are actually businesses, not public resources.”

True enough and a good point, echoed by many others. But I think the writers can be fairly paid without the TimesSelect wall. Currently, the Times will only let you read these columnists if you are a print subscriber or pay $49.95 per year for TimesSelect, which also includes access to newspaper archives and other goodies.

To figure out how much the Times is making off of TimesSelect per columnist is downright complicated, because of various factors. If there are 183,160 online-only subscribers as Tim Porter figures, then they could be getting annual revenues of about $4 million to $5 million because of free trials and educational discounts. But how many TimesSelect page views are going to columnists, how many are going to the archives, and how many are going to other TimesSelect features such as multimedia, News Tracker and Times Preview? (See the full list of TimesSelect features here.)

As a guess, let’s say that columnists get 40% of the page views, archives get 40% of page views, and other TimesSelect features get 10%. So the columnists, as a whole, would account for 40% of $4 million to $5 million, or about $1.8 million.

Now what if those columnists became bloggers? And what if the Times helped direct its massive online traffic to help promote these bloggers? John Battelle, who runs Federated Media Publishing, a blog marketing network, told me it would be hard to gauge the ad revenues they would bring in.

“Well, it depends entirely on their page views and the Times’ ability
to sell,” Battelle told me via email. “Say they do, en masse, 10 million page views a month (about the size of [popular group blog] BoingBoing). And the Times gets a decent [ad rate] for them, say $10 [per thousand page views]. That’s $100,000 a month, or $1.2 million a year. Not exactly a big hit for the Times.”

Another blog publisher, who preferred to remain anonymous, gave me similar numbers on ad rates for these potential big-name bloggers. So that number — $1.2 million — isn’t that far away from the $1.8 million the Times is currently bringing in from the columnists with TimesSelect. Remember this is very rough guesstimating. Battelle admitted he was taking a shot in the dark.

“But I really have no idea,” he told me. “It is totally dependent on them actually
being good bloggers. Which is related to, but not the same as being good columnists. My point on the economics of this is it makes A LOT of sense for individual bloggers with low overhead (who can make $5,000 to $15,000 a month, as many do at FM Publishing). But not much sense for media properties who have loads of operational costs to cover.”

Of course not every columnist makes a good blogger, but what benefits would the Times and its readers reap from turning some columnists into bloggers? It’s possible that the columnists would be more accountable to readers, and would have more interaction with readers through blog comments. The columnists could become more relaxed, more human, more reachable by the public.

NYTimes.com won an award for its Kristof Responds blog-like online forum, but then decided to put editorialist Nicholas Kristof and his new blog, On the Ground, behind the TimesSelect pay wall.

If the Times decides that the money it makes from columnists via TimesSelect is more valuable than opening them up to the free ad-supported web, the columnists could always consider doing blogs on their own and leaving the Times. According to Battelle, “If we could have three to four months’ ramp-up time, [FM] probably could get them to at least their current salaries, I’d wager.”

What do you think? Which Times columnists would make good bloggers, and which would not? Is this something they should consider doing, or do you think TimesSelect is a fine idea and worth paying for? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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