Can the New York Times Paywall Work?

Fourteen months after announcing that it was going to begin charging for heavy use of its Web site, the New York Times has revealed the details and the deadline. Starting March 28, the newspaper will institute a $15 monthly plan for access via the Web and a phone app, a $20 plan for the Web and the iPad app, and $35 for an all-access option. Subscribers to the print edition -- which costs about $63 a month (after an initial 50 percent-off

deal), at least here in the Bay Area -- will get everything for no extra charge.

(Canadians are subject to the new plan immediately -- they're serving as beta testers for us Yanks. Thanks, Canadians!)

Other than the fact that the Times is attaching a price to its online content, the most important fact about its strategy is that this paywall only goes into effect for fairly voracious readers. You can read 20 articles a month at no charge. People who come to the site via Google will be able to read five stories a day for free; visitors from Facebook and Twitter won't have to pay. Clearly, the goal is to extract some money out of people who treat the digital incarnations of the Times pretty much like a newspaper, without killing traffic from more casual types who come only occasionally or are directed to specific stories by their friends.

Looking around the Web, I can't find anyone giving the Times' new strategy a thumbs up. I do find plenty of people saying they won't pay and criticizing the permeable paywall for being too complicated and predicting it will fail. I'm willing to give it a chance, at least -- unlike failed paywalls of the past, it's designed to be transparent to everybody but serious Times readers.

So will I pay up? Well...maybe. Probably. Especially since it's a deductible business expense, and especially since I cheerfully admit to having a bias in favor of the idea of people being willing to pay for high-quality content.

I don't understand, however, why the all-access plan costs as much as the Web/phone and Web/iPad plans put together. Doesn't that mean that all-access subscribers are paying for the Web twice? (Sounds to me it's like a restaurant that charges $15 for a burger and Coke, $20 for a burger and fries, or $35 for a burger, a Coke, and fries.)

Of course, whether any one person (especially any one person who happens to be in the media himself) is willing to pay up is immaterial. The opinions that matter are those of the millions of people who aren't used to paying for news on the Web.

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