Times Columnists Dance on TimesSelect Grave

“If you mention the words ‘subscription’ and ‘Internet,’” said Andrew Rosenthal, “the bloggers come after you with pitchforks!”

Mr. Rosenthal, the New York Times editorial page editor, of course won’t have to deal with pitchfork-wielding bloggers, now that TimesSelect, the newspaper’s paid subscription service—complete with a op-ed columnist-shielding pay wall—has officially been killed off.

Nor will Mr. Rosenthal have to fend off the 22 opinion columnists who had been behind the paywall.

Two years ago, when TimesSelect launched, life on the opinion pages wasn’t looking so rosy among columnists about to lose large swaths of their readership, and subsequently favored status on the paper’s “Most E-Mailed List.”

As The Observer reported at the time, the Times columnists occupied “13 of the top 25 spots” on the Most E-Mailed List.

Yesterday afternoon, right before the pay-wall came down, it was a much different story: Only Bob Herbert had cracked the top 25.

“When we decided to do it originally, nobody liked the idea of being behind a wall,” said Gail Collins, then editorial page editor turned op-ed columnist. “But everybody understood the importance of looking for different models. To that extent, everyone was semi-heroic—especially the columnists like Tom and Nick.”

Ms. Collins singled out columnists Mr. Friedman and Nicholas Kristof because they enjoy “wide overseas followings.”

“I write about international issues, and in the past, it was next to impossible for many Chinese or Pakistanis or Sudanese to read my columns,” said Mr. Kristof, who’s currently on book leave through early 2008. “Even if they had the money, they probably didn’t have the credit card.”

With TimesSelect a thing of the past, Mr. Kristof—who’s on both MySpace and MyTimes—said that the best strategy for NYTimes.com is to incorporate “social networking that involves a lot of reader generated content, that tries to get as many eyeballs as possible, [and] that keeps them on the site.”

“We absolutely have got to reach young readers if we want to reach anyone at all,” Mr. Kristof said. “Young readers do not want to pay for content.”

Another recently-liberated Times writer agreed.

“Apparently, the entire generation of internet readers are allowed to believe all information is free,” said metro columnist Clyde Haberman.

“In a way, I’m sorry to see it didn’t work out as well as hoped,” he added. “I don’t see anything wrong with asking readers of the print edition or online to help pay for some of the freight.”

Mr. Rosenthal said that TimesSelect’s future has been a topic of conversation throughout his tenure running the opinion pages, which started on January 1.

And in that time several measures were initiated to keep Times columnists top-of-mind even if they are hidden behind a log-in screen.

Mr. Rosenthal said that plans to launch an editorial-board blog—tentatively titled “The Board”—and to import more outside blogs (the site recently took over the popular-economics blog Freakonomics) will go forward even now that the paywall has come down.

Despite being an open secret at 620 Eighth Avenue for months, Mr. Haberman said that TimesSelect’s final demise was not fully explained to staff until the day it happened. In the end, he said, “the curtain came down a little more rapidly than I thought.”

Mr. Rosenthal said he personally called the columnists to tell them the good news—after the Times public-relations department had found a way of ending the thing gracefully.

“What it came down to is basically the seismic shift that happened in the internet, in that search has become so dominant in order to find content,” said Vivian Schiller, a senior vice president who manages NYTimes.com.

In addition to freeing up the columnists, NYTimes.com is “unleashing five million new documents from our archive,” she said.