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New Journalism Clubs Are "Members Only"

Step right up. You too can be ripped off by the New York Times' latest moneymaking gimmick: online courses from Nicholas Kristof, Gail Collins and Eric Asimov.
 
 
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 Desperate to stay alive, beleaguered newspaper executives first tried to “monetize” their “content.”

Now they’re desperately trying to “monetize” their “journalists.” And although theWashington Post recently stumbled badly in offering its pay-to-play sponsored ‘salons” to access seekers, the fact that the paper’s own ombudsman called the offer “an ethical lapse of monumental proportions” hasn’t deterred other journalistic powerhouses in their pell-mell rush to revenue. The latest cases in point: the New York Times and theGuardian

As the indispensable Nieman Lab reported recently, “School’s in session at The New York Times this fall, and the professors include some big bylines on campus: Nicholas Kristof, Gail Collins, and Eric Asimov.” And if, like me, you are an indefatigable student of journalism, here is what’s on offer from the newspaper-of-record’s Knowledge Networkadult-education program, operated in partnership with local universities: one hundred weeklong, largely online courses for Times readers willing to pay between $125 and $185 in exchange for getting schooled by the likes of Times Op-Ed stars like Kristof and Collins.

The courses taught by Kristof and Collins also include a “live, interactive Webcast,” three written lessons, and a message board where students can interact with their instructors – although, caveat emptor, only a few of the hundred courses actually include the participation of Times writers…

This year marks the first time that Times columnists have participated in the three-year-old project – which as Nieman Lab noted, “could be a precursor to the membership model the Times is considering in its search for new revenue streams on the web.”

As Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported last month, Scott Heekin-Canedy, the president and general manager of The New York Times Media Group, “is deciding between two charging systems – a ‘metered’ and a ‘membership’ model,” and a decision is expected imminently.

“The metered model, as the Financial Times uses, gives access without a charge for a certain number of page views. The so-called “membership model” includes a collection of different privileges and services not available to the non-paying reader.

‘We have events – called Times Talks – where journalists interview important people. If you come in on the website, you might get special access to discussions with a journalist. There might be special offers for other products and services,’ he says, adding that special offers for hotels and restaurants could be included in any offer.

The decision by the publisher of the New York Times comes as the global recession forces newspaper owners to step up efforts to increase profits from their digital operations.

While a decision on how to charge will be made shortly, Mr Heekin-Canedy said formal plans will only be announced when the technology is in place. However, the group is hoping for a speedy roll-out of the system.”

The membership model was hawked just last month in a Times reader surveydescribing how paid ‘members’ of the Times Exclusive Journalism Club – oops, I mean “NYT Gold” — might purchase special access:

“TimesInsider: Ever wanted to talk cooking with Mark Bittman or to discuss books with Janet Maslin? How about a tour of the Times headquarters, including the newsroom? NYT Gold gives you insider’s access to the people who bring you the Times everyday.”

Meanwhile, The UK’s Guardian newspaper is moving ahead with its own plans for a membership program that might also include exclusive events and access to journalists. As a recent job posting for general manager of the “Guardian Club” explains:

“Increasingly we believe our future resides at the centre of a community of engaged readers and users, whose relationship with us will be much closer and more involved. The Guardian Club will be our transformational next step in bringing these customers to the centre of our business, rewarding loyalty while growing our reach and revenues. We want members of the Club to feel that they are genuinely part of our organisation, and as close as it is possible to get to the editorial heart of our company.”

As a Guardian spokeswoman said, “It makes sense for the business and for our readers to both harness and reward that loyalty. Our recently launched subscription scheme is one way of doing so and another idea under consideration is a Guardian offering based around the concept of a ‘friends’ scheme or members’ club.”

Although certain aspects of these Members Only club plans have been trotted out in the past — it was less than two years ago that the NYT stopped offering its TimesSelect premium online service, which charged for access to blogs and columnists – Times GM/President Heekin-Canedy told the Telegraph that times (pun intended?) have changed:

“The climate seems to have changed. There seems to be more of a willingness to pay. We charged roughly $50 a year for Times Select and we had about 200,000 paying subscribers. The reason we discontinued Times Select is that we came to the conclusion that search engine optimisation had changed and it would give us the ability to generate more advertising revenue if we did not charge for content.”

What’s next in the endless quest for newspaper revenue enhancement – wine clubs? Oops — there I go again! Well, maybe you can just take Times wine columnist Eric Asimov’s NYT Gold course instead. After all, $125 will buy your way in to the single session – although the price of the booze isn’t included! Didn’t these jokers learnanything in journalism school?

Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor is the author of "Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio" (AlterNet Books, 2008). O'Connor also writes the Media Is A Plural blog.
 
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