Interview: Martin Nisenholtz, SVP-Digital Operations, NYTCO; Scott Heekin-Canedy, President & GM, Th

sheekinnyt1.jpg
[Staci D. Kramer] The world’s axis won’t shift Monday when nearly two dozen New York Times columnists go behind a pay wall and the Times won’t cease to be relevant. But the changes coming with TimesSelect will tilt the way the Times interacts with its readers — and the broader online universe. For example, through Sunday, New York Times News Service clients have the right to publish online any syndicated content they publish in print. As of Monday, though, that same content has to be behind a pay wall on client sites. The result: the majority of clients will not be able to publish the syndicated content online. One alternative: send readers off-site to NYTimes.com, where they can subscribe to TimesSelect.

NYTCO is launching TimesSelect with what amounts to a Timesian full-court press: teaser ads, including the high-profile classified spot on the front page and preview banner ads touting a 20-percent discount; an 8-page ad in Monday’s paper with the theme “Upgrade Your Relationship With the New York Times;” ads in every Times print publication and across NYTCO sites including About.com; national radio; and banner ads on major portals and other news sites through the end of the year. No TV.

In a 30-minute phone interview this afternoon, Martin Nisenholtz, SVP-Digital Operations, NYTCO, and Scott Heekin-Canedy, President & GM, The New York Times, went over their plans — and what they see as very few potential minuses — of TimesSelect.

On subscribers: TimesSelect launches with at least 15,000 subscribers converted from the current NewsTracker subscription service. That’s one of the three broad groups “we’re putting in the bucket now,” says Nisenholtz. The other two are print subs, who get access without an additional charge, and readers willing to pay for the new service. (The subscription is $39.95 through Monday and $49.95 after.) The two executives wouldn’t provide details on the sign-up rates for those two groups but Nisenholtz says, “We’ve gotten more response than we expected to get (during preview week).”

As I’m writing, the subscription process for home subscribers is being tweaked; they’ve also added a special 800 number (866-819-5004) to deal with questions. It’s easier for people who already have online accounts.

Effect on current subscriptions: Heekin-Canedy said they would be monitoring acquisition rates and retention rates but it’s too soon to even begin to do that effectively. Asked if he hoped it would be perceived as additional value for print subscribers, Heekin-Canedy replied, “There are people with price sensitivities, value-convenience segments for whom this could make a difference.”

Multiple access: This was a big question for our two-reader, multi-computer household. Each subscription includes two sign-ons for the same ID.

On RSS: NYTimes.com remains committed to RSS, says Nisenholtz; premium content will be identified by what on Monday will become a ubiquitous premium logo. Previous RSS links will remain free and unbroken. The site also will be adding sub-section and topic feeds.

Relevance and traffic: Despite the darkest musings of the blogosphere about dissolving the Op-Ed columnists’ relevancy by removing them from the free market, Nisenholtz insists, “Tom Friedman’s ideas, Maureen Dowd’s ideas are going to be as vibrant in my view, as important the day after as the day before.” At another point, he says, “I hope there are enough people who matter in the world who are going to continue to read the (22) columnists.” Both men know the site is going to take an immediate traffic hit. “We think that within six months we’re going to be right back to where we were are now,” says Nisenholtz. The 97-3 equation — 97 percent of the site will remain free — is waved around like a flag but ask how much traffic that 3 percent represents and the specifics end. “We don’t break them out,” says Nisenholtz, adding carefully, “There’s a reason why (Editorial Page Editor) Gail Collins says the columnists are the distinctive voices of the New York Times.”

They expect the combination of features — Op-Ed columnists with a dedicated readership, deeper, easier and less costly access to the archives, news tracking, etc. — to attract subscribers. Heekin-Canedy: “This is a new product in many respects, a bundling of very significant value. To Martin’s point, our research very strongly supports willingness to pay far beyond what we’re charging. … This is very much grounded in our brand strategy and our brand research.”

More on the blogosphere: The company isn’t surprised by the negative response from some bloggers; it would have been unrealistic to expect otherwise. And Nisenholtz said, “No one is suggesting they’re wrong. There’s a very real argument.” But, he adds, “It’s very, very narrow in my view to make this ‘here today, gone tomorrow’.”