Frank Rich quitting the New York Times to work at New York Magazine is hitting many Manhattan elitists as strangely odd and curious, but it makes sense to me in “Richian” sort of way.

Here is Slates’ Jack Safer analysis, published yesterday, concerning the move:

But unless the deal came with Bloombergian bags of cash, it makes no sense.

I’m not suggesting that Frank Rich will disappear when he departs the Times for New York magazine, but the switch will transform him from the fat man in the biggest room in the oversized mansion of newspaper journalism to just another high-profile scribbler at a magazine. Oh, the New York press release says Rich will be editing a special “section anchored by his essay,” and be commenting on the magazine’s Web site, but it’s a step down. Today, Rich’s column appears in supersized format in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, which has a print circulation of 1.35 million, and more than 34.5 million unique monthly visitors to its Web site, compared to New York magazine’s 405,000 circulation and 8.5 million uniques.

I believe Frank Rich quit the New York Times because of their impending paywall.

Starting in January 2011, a visitor to NYTimes.com will be allowed to view a certain number of articles free each month; to read more, the reader must pay a flat fee for unlimited access. Subscribers to the print newspaper, even those who subscribe only to the Sunday paper, will receive full access to the site without any additional charge.

Executives of The New York Times Company said they wanted to create a system that would have little effect on the millions of occasional visitors to the site, while trying to cash in on the loyalty of more devoted readers. But fundamental features of the plan have not yet been decided, including how much the paper will charge for online subscriptions or how many articles a reader will be allowed to see without paying.

I may not be right about the paywall, but history is on my side, as you will soon see, and I was certainly right about the Pink Floyd Royalties fiasco from a year ago.

The New York Times previously tried to paywall their content, and it was a mega-FAIL with their star opinion authors and readers.  Here’s some juicy historical evidence of the previous rancor at the New York Times published by none other than Frank Rich’s new employer, New York Magazine, on January 17, 2010:

Hanging over the deliberations is the fact that the Times’ last experience with pay walls, TimesSelect, was deeply unsatisfying and exposed a rift between Sulzberger and his roster of A-list columnists, particularly Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd, who grew frustrated at their dramatic fall-off in online readership. Not long before the Times ultimately pulled the plug on TimesSelect, Friedman wrote Sulzberger a long memo explaining that, while he was initially supportive of TimesSelect, he’d been alarmed that he had lost most of his readers in India and China and the Middle East.

“As we got into it, it was clear to me I was getting cut off from a lot of my readers in India and China where 50 dollars per year would be equal to a quarter of college tuition,” Friedman recently told me by phone. “What was coming to me anecdotally from my travels was the five worst words that as a columnist you ever want to hear: ‘I used to read you before you went behind the wall.’”

If you carefully read the Press Release from New York Magazine heralding Frank’s defection from the Times to their rank, also published yesterday, you can see the breadcrumb evidence of Frank being embedded into their non-paper, digital web, peppered throughout the announcement:  [Emphasis added is mine.]

Rich will be an essayist for the magazine, writing monthly on politics and culture, and will serve as an editor-at-large, editing a special monthly section anchored by his essay. He will also be a commentator on nymag.com, engaging in regular dialogues on the news of the week. …

He will also be offering his insights weekly online, in a feature designed especially to showcase his talents as an original observer of American culture. …

“We are proud to add the extraordinary talent of Frank Rich to New York,” says publisher Larry Burstein. “He joins at a perfect time, as the company has evolved into a print and digital juggernaut. What began as a single magazine title with great influence in New York now includes award-winning digital products and reaches 10 million readers and web users nationwide each month, bringing critical success to critical mass. With Frank Rich contributing, we expect our influence to grow even wider.”

Frank Rich left the New York Times, not because of friendship, but because he doesn’t want to be stuck behind a paywall that will inevitably minimize his stature while simultaneously failing for a second time as internet readers race away to find free online content — like that offered by NYmag.com — and the NYTimes.com refusal to adapt to the will of their readership will be the beginning of the start of the end of their “newspaper of record.”

Frank Rich’s opinion pieces on NYTimes.com are dead paper published in a lively format.  His writing gets no feedback — through no fault of his own.  There is no interaction with his readers.  His words just sit there, dead in space, and flopping around for attention to be paid.  Frank knows the future is in an open publishing platform on the web where everyone can read his work for free and he’ll even be free to “join in the conversation” on NYmag.com — something he was never allowed to do on NYTimes.com.

Frank Rich wants to be free and unfettered on the web — and NYmag.com gave him that opportunity to change without The Times.

4 Comments

    1. Yes, it’s a strange and sad thing to see. Once that paywall is erected, I don’t think it will ever come down. The decision will have been made and there will be no going back — to the ultimate demise of NYTimes.com.