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In today’s New York Observer, John Koblin offers an entertaining preview of the coming newspaper war between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which will unveil its New York edition on April 26. (Disclosure: I spent nearly 13 years as a writer, columnist, editor, cat herder etc. at the Online Journal before they laid me off in the summer of 2008.)
On one level, this will be a lot of fun.
Robert Thomson, the Journal’s editor, is apparently incapable of speaking without saying something barbed and provocative. Witness his infamous description of content aggregators as tapeworms in the intestines of the Internet, or the advice for Times readers that he passes along via Koblin: “cancel your subscription, read it on the Web for free and buy the Journal.” Thomson is a smart guy and a character, and journalism could use more of both. As for his boss, Rupert Murdoch needs no introduction.
The Times has stayed mostly above the fray, which is what you’d expect from an institution that still generally sticks to the Gray Lady script in its public statements. But there’s an undercurrent of nastiness on its part, too — particularly given how many former Journal people now work for the Times. Koblin notes that the Journal remains furious at the Times’s poaching of arts reporter Kate Taylor, who apparently was very familiar with the New York edition plans. And there’s the fact that Times spokesman Bob Christie was until very recently a Journal spokesman, which lends statements like this added zing: “The readers and employees of The Wall Street Journal deserve much better than this type of juvenile behavior from its editor in chief.” That’s not quite getting to tell the boss exactly what you think of him, but it’s pretty close.
So anyway, pass the popcorn!
But on another level it all seems quaint, like a Broadway revival. Thomson in particular talks mostly as if this were a print drama, discussing pages and jumps and saying Times readers are frustrated by the act of reading. His statements about the online side of this fight are startling.
Asked what Journal offerings will be free to readers online, Thomson told Koblin “nothing,” then amended that to “virtually nothing.” If so, that seems like an awfully big missed opportunity to peel off the Times’ online readers. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out it isn’t so — Thomson is good at strategic misdirection. (Besides, Murdoch himself hasn’t always seemed clear on how his paper’s paywall works.) Moreover, such a strategy would ignore the success the Journal has had with a much more nuanced approach to paywalls. The Journal has long understood that you can do well giving away individual articles to spark awareness through search and social media but still charging for the product as a whole.
Then there’s Thomson’s belief that there are no second reads any more — you’ll buy one paper only. That’s Koblin’s paraphrase, but assuming it captures what Thomson said, I’m dumbstruck.
You could counter that on the Web there are second and third and fourth and nth reads, but the entire concept is faintly ridiculous online. Readers consume information in fragments from a vast array of news sources — some encountered because they’re part of daily habits, but many more discovered through search and social recommendations. For the online audience, there aren’t reads at all anymore — at least not in the way Thomson seems to be thinking of them.
Koblin describes the imminent dustup in New York as “an old-fashioned, honest-to-God press war,” and judging from Thomson’s comments, I’d put the emphasis on “old-fashioned.” Today’s press wars are fought at a far more atomized level than this, decided not by surveys of subway cars but by millions of clicks on Twitter and Facebook and Google. Finding a principal in this drama discussing second reads is a little like stumbling upon a Juarez narco-smuggler wearing a fedora and brandishing a tommy gun.
But what the hell, I’m sure they’ll sell a lot of tickets for the revival.
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