The “Times” Opinion Curse

A scene from June:

On June 10, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Mark Thompson and Andrew Rosenthal, along with New York Times Op-Ed columnists Charles M. Blow, David Brooks, Frank Bruni, Roger Cohen, Gail Collins, Ross Douthat, Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristof and Joe Nocera, celebrated the launch of NYT Opinion, the new stand-alone Opinion subscription and mobile app, at NeueHouse in New York City.

Other notable attendees: Mayor Bill de Blasio, Lorne Michaels, professional basketball player Jason Collins, Katie Couric, Savannah Guthrie, Charlie Rose, Gayle King, Norah O’Donnell, Mia Farrow, “Orange Is the New Black” creator [sic] Piper Kerman, and Barbara Walters.

This was not just a huge party for a new app. It was an enormous vote of confidence in the New York Times opinion franchise, which the institution reveres and protects at all costs.

Now, a story dated October 1st:

Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Thompson said that even with the cutbacks — 100 positions comprise about 7.5 percent of the newsroom staff — The Times would continue to expand and invest heavily in initiatives that supported its growth strategy, like digital technology, audience development and mobile offerings.

But they also said they had decided to wind down NYT Opinion because it had not drawn a substantial audience. And while praising NYT Now, a new app aimed at younger readers, they said that as a lower-priced subscription offer, it had not proved as popular as they had hoped.

As it “winds down” the Opinion app has a total of 85 ratings in the App Store — just six for the most recent version — and a handful of reviews, most of which fall into the categories of “mysteriously positive and design-focused” and “somewhat annoyed.” According to an internal memo from Arthur Sulzberger and Mark Thompson, “it hasn’t attracted the kind of new audience it would need to be truly scalable.”

Framing this as a “scalability” issue makes it sound like a tech problem, an app problem, or an internet problem. That’s not what this was — NYT Opinion was an interesting piece of software run by talented people but built around an opinion franchise that finished accumulating new fans a decade ago — a franchise whose leader reports directly to Art Sulzberger, not executive editor Dean Baquet. It was a four-month test of the draw of the Times star opinion writers on their own, without the benefit of context or momentum or years of reader habit and loyalty. The results were clear, just as they were in 2007 when readers refused to pay for* Times Select: Given the opportunity to pay six dollars a month for greater access to Thomas Friedman, Charles M. Blow, David Brooks, Frank Bruni, Roger Cohen, Gail Collins, Ross Douthat, Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristof and Joe Nocera, people with smartphones resolutely did not. The continued existence of the Opinion app would have been an embarrassment to the paper’s biggest names and therefore it had to die.

The revamped Opinion section of the website will live, which makes some sense: It’s buoyed by aggressive commissioned essays, often written by well-scouted first-time contributors, that do well on the open internet but that sit and wilt in an app. They’re pieces that are only loosely associated with the Times and its staff; the types of things that people don’t seek out so much as come across. And it’s sad about Now, which is great. It’s less irritating and noisy than Twitter and only a little less immediate. It never really runs out of material, because it doesn’t mind linking out. It’s better than any of the other single-site news apps, the primary NYT app included.

Anyway: “They are all experiments, which we are determined to treat as such: to learn, pivot and, where necessary, make prompt decisions about them,” the internal death notice says. Deep newsroom cuts, 100 people. Pivot.

* Michael Roston of the Times points out that before it was discontinued, Times Select had accumulated 227k subscribers for its archive/paywall product. Perhaps “refused to pay” is strong; people paid, just not enough of them to be more valuable than ad dollars lost to the paywall.