New York Times to launch squeegee brigade

The New York Times intends to recoup a portion of the revenue lost to its elimination of most online subscription services by enlisting all reporters, columnists and editors in what will be called The New York Times Premium Stoplight Squeegee Service.

Although not mentioned in the official announcement of the demise of TimesSelect, Network World has learned of the newspaper's windshield-washing plans through a Times reporter who asked to remain anonymous for fear of "losing this sorry-ass job."

"You gotta be friggin' kidding me," the veteran reporter told Buzzblog. "Why can't we sell hot dogs or Italian ice on the street corner instead; anything would be more dignified than squeegees."

Launched in 2005, TimesSelect had been considered a critical test case for paid content on the 'Net and its failure will reverberate throughout an online publishing industry that finds itself grasping at straws to find revenue.

The Premium Stoplight Squeegee Service -- or Psss, as it will be known in Times marketing materials -- is modeled after the iconic if somewhat controversial practice of New York's homeless accosting motorists, splattering their windows with water, and then asking payment to complete the job. Critics have called the business model everything from extortion to just plain icky.

Psss will be staffed Monday through Friday by a rotating platoon of 20 Times employees who will fan out in pairs over major intersections near the company's Manhattan headquarters. While pricing has yet to be determined, industry analysts I have spoken with estimate it is likely to start in the range of $2 to $5 per windshield, with a la carte options available for other windows.

But have we really come to the point in online publishing's struggle to find a workable revenue model where the Old Gray Lady has to become the Old Gray Squeegee Lady?

"Desperate times call for innovative solutions," Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told Buzzblog in a terse telephone interview, "and our employees are more than happy to roll up their sleeves."

Sulzberger stressed in our talk that Psss squeegee wielders will "refrain from being obnoxious" and only spray water on the windshields of cars whose drivers have already indicated an interest in the service. "We can't be jerks about it or the city is sure to take a dim view," he said. "No taxis either; those guys can be dangerous, and, in our beta testing, too many just wouldn't pay."

Asked about the potential for negative press and brand erosion, Sulzberger scoffed at such concerns.

"Get real, pal," he sneered, "we're just trying to survive."

Paul Krugman, a prize-winning economist and Times columnist, told me has mixed feelings about the squeegee move.

"The economist in me has to wonder about the real profit potential here, what with the escalating cost of rubber -- and hence squeegees -- and the extra insurance that'll be needed to cover us when we're working out in New York City traffic," he said. "But if it means everyone will get to read my column again online, well, hand me a bucket."

Times technology writer David Poque said he's fine with the initiative -- "Did you see my house on "60 Minutes"? Nuff said." -- and that he's been busy researching squeegees.

"Squeegee technology hasn't advanced much over the years, but I've seen stuff from … oh, right, I'm under NDA. Let's just say we're going to leave some drivers with their jaws agape."

I'm sure they will.

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